Matt Kemp has been parked in the dugout for the past five games. He’s not happy about this, but the Dodgers outfield is crowded and Kemp doesn’t resemble the player he was a few seasons ago. Don Mattingly claims Kemp is being held out of the lineup because he’s a defensive liability — the numbers bear this out — and the team plans to platoon him with Carl Crawford in left field [edit note: since this article was published, it was reported that Crawford was headed to the DL with a left ankle sprain, which likely means Kemp will get regular playing time, at least for now]. That’s $42 million this season being spent on one position. It’s not like other big-market teams haven’t paid obscene amounts of money to players who contributed part-time (or contributed poorly), but one would hope $42 million would buy prime Manny Ramirez-level production. As of Tuesday afternoon, Crawford has an OPS of .689 and Kemp is at .780.
A number of media members are arguing that there seems to be a gap in understanding between Kemp and his manager. Mattingly says Kemp appears not to be moving well since his ankle surgery this past offseason, and Kemp says he’s completely healthy. Mattingly is hoping against hope that he’s wrong — he has wondered aloud to the press if the 29-year-old outfielder simply doesn’t trust his newly repaired wheel yet — but I think what he means is not that Kemp is necessarily banged up, but that what we’re seeing from him is what he’s capable of. Kemp’s ankle could be fully healed, but not nearly as useful as it used to be. Maybe employing step-slow Matt Kemp is the Dodgers’ new reality.
Because of this, Mattingly has an embryonic drama to deal with. Kemp has been a pro through this past handful of games, but one can’t expect him to be satisfied with a platoon gig or extended benchings. The sort of self-belief Kemp possesses that helped make him great is the same thing that will lead him to believe he deserves to start, even if there are, in fact, more capable players in front of him on the lineup sheet. Surely, he’ll think, I can start in some other outfield. The problem is, he really can’t, because no one else would be willing to pay him $20 million per year until the end of the 2019 season. Both Crawford and Andre Ethier — the two players in Kemp’s way — are locked up until at least 2017. (Ethier has a club option for 2018.) Kemp is stuck; he’s likely going to have to turn his career around in a Dodgers uniform.
Of course, perhaps Kemp is still operating at 80 percent, and he’ll be in top condition by July or August. And if he looks good, either Crawford or Ethier will see his playing time shrink. (Obligatory And Who Knows What Will Happen With Puig note here.) Dodgers brass wasn’t concerned at the season’s outset about having, in effect, four starting-caliber outfielders, but just two months into the year, they’re seeing how it can be a discontent-sowing issue when you stick someone who’s used to playing every day on the bench for any amount of time. Kemp says he just wants to play. Every player wants this, but one as talented as Kemp actually does belong in the lineup — or a lineup somewhere, at least — day after day, provided he thinks his body can take the grind. Crawford and Ethier could make similar cases. This conundrum isn’t going to resolve itself anytime soon unless an injury-inducing catastrophe befalls someone. Mattingly is in for a long summer.