What to do about: Matt Kemp's health

October, 16, 2012
10/16/12
1:40
PM PT
Periodically this offseason, we'll be examining some of the issues facing the Dodgers in the near future. First order of business: Matt Kemp.

I remember several years ago having a conversation with Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was raving about the all-around brilliance of Eric Davis' game when he was first establishing himself with the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1980s.

I asked Scioscia if Matt Kemp, who was about 24 at the time, reminded him of a young Davis. They both had speed, power, the ability to track down anything hit in the air.

The difference, Scioscia said, was size. And therein lies the rub.

You simply don't see many center fielders who are 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. When a body that big collides with a less-than-forgiving wall or flops awkwardly on the ground, the physics aren't forgiving. The Dodgers season, in fact, may have effectively ended when Kemp went barreling into that wall in Colorado, preceding one of the worst slumps of his career. It seemed to create a chilling effect on the rest of the lineup, which slumped its way out of contention for the next several weeks.

Is it worth it to keep Kemp in center? Or should the Dodgers consider sliding Kemp into a corner spot, which -- by the way -- is exactly what happened with Davis when he got into his 30s. It happens, in fact, to virtually all the power-hitting center fielders one day. Torii Hunter was 36 before he moved and he's coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career.

The Dodgers could save a lot of wear and tear on Kemp's body if they make the move before his 30th birthday. According to both Ultimate Zone Rating and defensive Wins Above Replacement, two of the more widely used defensive measures, Kemp has been a below-average center fielder since 2009.

When we talked to general manager Ned Colletti after the season, he said it's something the team might revisit later, but is not considering for 2013. Why? Alternatives. Carl Crawford hasn't played center field since 2008 and also will be coming off surgery. The Dodgers aren't going to force longer throws on his reconstructed left elbow by moving him to center. Andre Ethier has played all of one career game in center field, last season in place of Kemp.

It may not be a 2013 possibility, but it should be a 2014 priority. Crawford may not be as good as Kemp in center field. But if he misplays a few more balls or can't get to as many as Kemp would have, it will be worth it if it means Kemp plays for six months, not five. Over time, pitchers often find that they have equal if not greater arm strength once they fully heal from Tommy John surgery. It shouldn't be a long-term impediment for Crawford.

As we saw in 2012, the Dodgers' fortunes graph closely to Kemp's. It's really all about keeping him in the batter's box.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
19 1.70 219 185
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .294
HRA. Gonzalez 23
RBIA. Gonzalez 106
RD. Gordon 86
OPSY. Puig .856
ERAC. Kershaw 1.70
SOC. Kershaw 219