Dodgers can survive without Matt Kemp

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
8:00
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp wasn’t there the day Yasiel Puig arrived from Chattanooga, Tenn. In fact, had Kemp not gotten hurt, Puig might have spent the season in the minor leagues, or at least had his rocket ship of a rookie season stalled on the launching pad for a while.

Kemp was in the lineup for only 11 of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 42 wins from June 22 to Aug. 7, when their pace was the best 50-game snippet the National League had seen in almost 70 years.

He got there in time to celebrate in the pool and clubhouse during the Dodgers’ NL West-clinching party in Arizona, but just barely. It was his fourth game back after missing two months.

[+] EnlargeKemp-Puig
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTheir sensational summer without Matt Kemp, left, entails that Yasiel Puig, right, and the Dodgers can play deep into October minus Kemp.
So, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is perfectly correct to say the Dodgers can not only win without Kemp, they have won without Kemp.

But the timing isn't ideal.

News that Kemp is lost for the postseason came at an awkward moment. The Dodgers were on the field whipping up fan frenzy for their first playoff appearance in four seasons Sunday at the exact moment Kemp, inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, was informing reporters he’d been shut down for the rest of the season.

Not exactly some happy news to go sailing with into October.

But the real reason Sunday’s news left such a mark was that Andre Ethier’s availability for the first round of the playoffs hangs by a thread. Ethier might not have been an impact offensive player this season, but he was a solid contributor to the offense and a reliable glove in center field. As long as other hitters were providing the power around him, Ethier kept the Dodgers’ lineup humming along.

Ethier hasn’t run since the Dodgers shut down his running program last week in San Francisco. If he makes the roster for the Dodgers’ series in Atlanta, it figures to be as a pinch hitter.

So, yeah, Kemp’s injury might have just reduced the Dodgers’ chances of advancing to the National League Championship Series by a few percentage points or so, depending on how healthy some of the other nicked-up Dodgers are.

“It’s not going to be easy. He does big things, but, at the same time, we just have to play as a team,” Hanley Ramirez said. “Everybody knows that Matt Kemp is a great player.”

In 2013, Kemp wasn’t a great player, actually. He was an average player, maybe slightly below average for an outfielder. In Kemp’s most recent stint on the disabled list, for the ankle, the Dodgers went 36-17 without him.

But his threat gave the Dodgers’ offense more length. Pitchers have reason to fear Kemp and, to some extent, Ethier.

Now, they’ll see either Skip Schumaker, who is virtually devoid of power, or someone such as Scott Van Slyke, whom they probably have never heard of. Plus, the Dodgers’ bench gets a little worse whenever Schumaker is inserted in the starting lineup.

The Dodgers, however, are far from doomed. If Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw pitch to their capabilities, you and I could probably take up a couple lineup spots and the Dodgers could survive.

Schumaker started in center field in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series, and it didn’t seem to hurt the St. Louis Cardinals much. They were world champions. If the Dodgers can get by Atlanta, Ethier should be healthy enough to play in the next round.

At times, Kemp showed glimpses of his MVP-caliber 2011 and April of 2012, when he was, arguably, the best all-around player in the game. He batted .314 with three doubles and a home run in his last 11 games, but there were also troubling signs, even in the good times. In those 11 games, Kemp struck out seven times, three more times than he walked.

He would have been particularly useful against the Braves, who could use two left-handed starting pitchers against the Dodgers in Mike Minor and Paul Maholm. The other team the Dodgers could have played, the St. Louis Cardinals, have no left-handed starters.

Before Sunday’s game, Mattingly -- a onetime batting champion and longtime hitting coach -- talked about what he saw in Kemp’s swing over the past two weeks.

“It still looks, to me, like a spring training, because you’ll see bad days then good days, good days then bad days,” Mattingly said. “To me, that’s what the early season is. You see guys who one day look like they’re getting there and the next day are out of sorts again. We haven’t seen that locked-in look like what Matt had at the end of ’11 and beginning of ’12.

“But he definitely looked more like the beginning of ’12 than the beginning of this season.”

So, the Dodgers might have seen Kemp’s comeback forestalled. And, who knows, had his ankle held up, he might have been the one leading them to World Series glory. It just seems a tad ill-informed to suggest he was the only one capable of doing it.

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

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239