Matt Kemp works out before the Dodgers' game against the Red Sox on… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
There are good problems to have, bad ones and Matt Kemp ones.
He could go either way this month, turn into a godsend for the playoffs or a disgruntled player.
Kemp is currently rehabbing his latest injury at the Dodgers’ training facility in Phoenix after going 0-for-18 with seven strikeouts in a rehab assignment at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga.
His sprained ankle — injured in a belated slide just one game off the disabled list — apparently is sound, it’s his swing that is having trouble coming around. He’s played in just one of the Dodgers’ last 54 games, a period during which, you may have noticed, they have played extremely well.
So what do you do with Kemp when he and the Dodgers deem him ready to return?
Normally, a no-brainer. A healthy Kemp is one of baseball’s best all-round players. The trouble is, he really hasn’t been that guy for almost two seasons. The last time Kemp really played with greatness over any stretch was in April of 2012.
Then came a series of injuries, including major offseason shoulder surgery. He’s been on the disabled list three times this year. In 228 at-bats, he is hitting .263 with .319 on-base and .382 slugging percentages.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ normal starting outfield without him of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig has helped turn the Dodgers into a team that’s gone 36-9 since the All-Star break.
So where does he fit in when he does return?
“I’m a center fielder,” Kemp said before beginning his rehab appearances. “That’s my role, to play center field every day. I don’t know why people keep asking me what role I’m going to play.”
The truth is, despite all his talent and past success, Kemp is going to have to prove himself over the final few weeks of the regular season. He’s going to have to demonstrate he deserves to be in the postseason lineup at the expense of one of the other outfielders.
He’s not just going to be handed his old starting job back, which might come as a surprise to him.
“What I don’t want to do is just throw him back in and put him in the middle of this thing when everything is going pretty good and he’s not sharp,” said Manager Don Mattingly last week. “I want him to be sharp when he plays. That’s the biggest thing.”
Mattingly implied Thursday that he is not eager to remove Ethier from center field, either.
“Dre’s swinging the bat great,” Mattingly told Dylan Hernandez. “Dre’s made some plays in center field. It’s hard to really do anything with Dre. Carl’s swinging the bat right now, so we’ll see.”
The Dodgers were once a team designed around Kemp. They signed him to a $160-million contract. He was their centerpiece. And you have to wonder how much trouble he might have returning as part of a rotation.
“It’s getting back into the mix, back into the flow,” Mattingly said. “Where they get confidence, and you get confidence in where they’re at.”
Mattingly really has little choice but to play Kemp as much as possible when he first returns. He has to know where Kemp is at, know what to reasonably expect from him in the postseason.
And if he appears close to being in top form, the Dodgers will go into the postseason with a surplus of talented outfielders. And if he still struggles? Then all things are possible.
Kemp made his desire clear before going to Rancho Cucamonga: “I want to play every day. I don’t like to sit out of games. I like to play. I like to give my team a chance to win and think I can do that.”
Kemp seemed almost indignant at the suggestion that he would not play every day. Maybe if you had a season like he did in 2011 and signed for mega-millions, you’d think that way too.
Only contracts are not what it’s about in October.
“It’s not like Dre’s not making some change, and Carl’s not making some change,” Mattingly said. “And Puig’s been pretty good, so I just don’t think the contract has anything to do with it. We have a lot of guys making some money. We want to win.”
Which is ultimately what it comes down to. The Dodgers feel they are on the cusp of something special, and Mattingly will put out a lineup he feels gives him the best chance in the postseason.
With or without Kemp. His play the final weeks will be crucial, whether a surprise to him or not. In his last 14 at-bats before going on the DL, Kemp had seven hits, including a pair of home runs. So it’s not like it’s not still there. It’s just that the Dodgers' most talented player, oddly has something to prove and not a lot of time to do it.