Matt Kemp signing not without risk

November, 14, 2011
11/14/11
4:48
PM ET
With Buster Olney reporting that the Dodgers and MVP candidate Matt Kemp about to announce a new eight-year, $160 million contract, the two immediate questions: (1) Considering the team's ownership situation, how were the Dodgers able to complete this deal? (2) Was it a good deal?

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp raised his game to a new level in 2011, and the Dodgers are making moves to lock him up.
While ESPN Los Angeles reported last week that the Dodgers wouldn't be allowed to negotiate with free agents until the team is sold, they certainly weren't precluded from negotiating with their own players. Kemp had one year remaining before free agency and with any sale likely to spill over into the 2012 season, not being able to negotiate with Kemp this offseason would have been a major hindrance to signing him before he became a free agent. It was the right move to allow the Dodgers to deal with Kemp.

Now ... was it the right deal to make?

The contract will take Kemp from his age-27 through his age-34 seasons. The positives: Kemp led the NL in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, total bases, OPS+, WAR and runs created; won a Gold Glove; ranked second in stolen bases; played every game for the second straight year; plays a premium defensive position; seemed to mature after a tumultous 2010. It seems like a pretty safe contract: An MVP-caliber player at his peak who has proven to be a durable player and raised his game to a new level in 2011.

And therein lies the risk. Kemp was awesome in 2011, maybe the best player in baseball. But in 2010 ... not so much. He hit just .249, stole 19 bases in 34 attempts, and struggled so much on defense that his general manager called him out for regressing from the year before.

Maybe 2010 was just an anomoly; after all, Kemp was an excellent player in 2009 when he hit .297/.352/.490. Still, there is a big difference between the .842 OPS he posted in '09 and the .986 he posted in 2011. The Dodgers are taking a leap of faith that his 2011 season was for real.

The main issue there: He still struck out 23 percent of the time; that's not Mark Reynolds territory, but it was 25th-worst among players with at least 400 plate appearances. He was able to overcome the strikeouts because of his .380 average on balls in play -- tied with Adrian Gonzalez for the best mark in the majors, but an essentially unsustainable figure. Over the past five seasons, only 17 times has a player had a .375 BABIP (with only Ichiro Suzuki doing it twice). Kemp's career BABIP is .352. So unless he cuts down on his strikeouts, I would predict his batting line to fall back closer to his career averages of .294/.350/.496. On FanGraphs.com, Bill James projects his 2012 line at .293/.362/.516.

That still makes him a wonderful player, if not quite the automatic MVP candidate of 2011. Financially, the deal falls in line with going market rates, where each win in the free-agent market has been worth about $4.5 million. For Kemp to "earn" his $160 million, he'll have to average 4.4 wins above replacement per season over his eight seasons. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 6.0 WAR (Baseball-Reference) and 4.8 WAR (FanGraphs).

I love the fact that Kemp plays every day. He appears to be a good bet to remain healthy and productive into his 30s. I did think of the Vernon Wells contract with the Blue Jays, but two big differences: Wells was not as good in 2006 -- .899 OPS -- as Kemp was in 2011; was not as athletic as Kemp (17 steals versus 40); Wells had gone through two not-so-great seasons in 2004 and '05, versus just one for Kemp. It's a red flag comparison, but I think the evidence suggests Kemp is the better player. In all, seems like a reasonable deal for both sides.

Now, the Dodgers just need to find a new owner ... and get permission to go after Prince Fielder.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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