Much has been made of the steep and quick decline of Matt Kemp and even more so after his 2017 campaign. There is no way around it, Matt Kemp’s days of being one of the best players in baseball is over, however, that does not mean he isn’t still useful to a major league team. First, to understand what is next for Kemp we need to analyze how he got to this point in the first place.
Matt Kemp was born in Midwest City, Oklahoma. He was considered a basketball prodigy at Midwest City High School where he helped lead his team to two consecutive state titles. Baseball was Kemp’s second sport in high school, but it was obvious he had a special talent for the game and he chose to pursue a career in baseball over basketball. In the sixth round of the 2003 MLB Draft Kemp was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers and was given a signing bonus of $130,000.
Kemp began his minor league career with the Gulf Coast affiliate of the Dodgers and moved up quickly. In 2005, the year before his first MLB appearance, he hit 27 home runs for the Dodgers Florida State League affiliate Vero Beach. Kemp was called up on May 28, 2006 and made his debut against the Washington Nationals and in Kemp’s first season with the big-league club, like many rookies, he struggled with a .253/.289/.448 slash line and an 84 wRC+ and was sent back and forth to AAA. In his second stint with the Dodgers in 2007 he began to turn things around playing in 98 games and posting the first double digit home run total of his career to go along with a much improved 132 wRC+. From 2007-to-2010 Kemp was worth a combined 9.4 WAR playing in all outfield spots.
In 2011 everything just started to click for Kemp as he posted an outrageous season for the Dodgers and came in second in the NL MVP vote to Ryan Braun (Who was later found to be using PEDs during that stretch). In 2011 Kemp established himself as a budding superstar with a ridiculous 168 wRC+ and 8.3 WAR season, slugging 39 homers and driving in 115 runs. Kemp slightly regressed in 2012 but still posted a great season of 3.2 WAR baseball after the Dodgers had signed him to an 8-year $160 million-dollar extension in the previous offseason and Kemp was looking like a perennial all-star.
Kemp required a shoulder surgery after the 2012 season and predictably struggled to get started in 2013. Then, to make matters worse he pulled his right hamstring in late May and did not return to action until June 25. Kemp returned to the disabled list in early July after he began experiencing pain in his shoulder, the same shoulder he had previously had surgery on, but was able to return on July 21 and almost comically got injured again the same day. Kemp hurt his ankle sliding into home plate and during his rehab stint re-injured his hamstring once again which prompted the Dodgers to shut him down indefinitely.
In the 2014 season Kemp made his return after sitting out most of Spring Training and struggled. His injuries the previous season had evident effects on his ability to play center field. Kemp pulled himself together, however, and went on to post a decent year for the Dodgers with a 141 wRC+ and 25 home runs. The following offseason after 2014 the Dodgers traded Kemp along with $32 million in cash to the Padres for Joe Wieland, Yasmani Grandal and Zach Eflin. The deal almost didn’t go through when a physical revealed that Kemp had a severe case of arthritis in both hips, but San Diego could not renegotiate, and Kemp became a Padre.
Matt played in 154 games during the 2015 season, the most since his monster year in 2011 but it was apparent he was not the same as he once was. Kemp managed to have a positive WAR in 2015 but just barely at 0.4. He posted a pretty average stat line with subpar defense in right field and in the following season was traded to Atlanta. Kemp posted a pretty good second half with the Braves in 2016 and combined to hit 35 homers between San Diego and Atlanta, his highest total since 2011. In 2017 Kemp played 115 games with the Braves, all the while battling injuries. Kemp managed to still show some power with 19 home runs but his wRC+ was an exact league average 100. With his defense in major decline he posted a negative WAR for just the 3rd time in his career.
There is no denying that Matt Kemp is on the backside of his career and the fact is that his hips and legs won’t allow him to play an outfield position anymore without risking serious injury. With the meteoric rise of Braves outfield prospect Ronald Acuna it is clear that Kemp’s days with the Braves are numbered. The Braves are still on the hook for the final two years of his contract at $21,500,000 each season, with the Padres paying $3,500,000 a year, making the Braves responsible for $36,000,000 during 2018/19.
The probable best course of action to take with Matt Kemp at this stage is to find an AL team in need of a DH as his only value, if any, lies in his bat. Before injuries de-railed him during 2017 Kemp had a blistering first half and showed his ability to still give good offense. The Braves would most likely have to eat major salary or part with a prospect to move him.
Matt Kemp’s career has been full of “what could’ve been” and that’s sad because had he not been injured in 2013 who knows “what could’ve been”.