On the eve of the National League MVP announcement, we asked the experts across ESPN for some insights on five questions about Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp's past, present and future.
What did Kemp's 2011 mean to the Dodgers?
Jerry Crasnick, ESPN Baseball Insider: It meant that the Los Angeles Dodgers now have a player they've identified as the face of the franchise moving forward. That's important for perception, obviously, given what a circus it's been there during the McCourt ownership regime and how much they've alienated the fan base. Combine Kemp's breakout season with Clayton Kershaw's progression, and the Dodgers have a potential MVP in center field and a soon-to-be-24-year-old left-handed starter with a Cy Young Award in his collection. A lot of teams wish they were so fortunate.
Tony Jackson, ESPNLA.com Dodgers beat writer: Kemp provided a reason to pay attention, he and Clayton Kershaw. The team became a little more compelling in the second half, when it was playing at a higher level, but with no playoff race to speak of, there still wasn't a big reason to watch, other than these two individual performers. Kemp fell short in his chase for 40/40 and for the Triple Crown, and he may ultimately fall short in his chase for the MVP, but the fact he made such a strong push for all those things kept fans paying attention to a team they otherwise kind of abandoned out of protest of the ownership issues.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLA.com columnist: The Dodgers were on the verge of a historically bad, depressing season until Kemp and Kershaw got it going after the All-Star break. Kemp's offensive production carried the team to an inspired second half, set the tone for a group of young players the Dodgers are counting on in the future, and kept the focus on the field, instead of owner Frank McCourt's legal drama.
David Shoenfield, author of ESPN.com's Sweet Spot blog: Kemp's season will go down as one of the greatest in Dodgers history -- and that's Brooklyn or Los Angeles. In a city that loves its big stars, the Dodgers finally have the type of offensive centerpiece you can build a championship lineup around.
Jon Weisman, author of ESPNLA.com's Dodger Thoughts blog: It meant the world, or at least half of the world, alongside what Kershaw delivered. It meant that when the Dodgers took the field each game, they had reason to believe they had a fighting chance, as opposed to only a prayer. And it also meant a lesson: that you shouldn't give up on a talented player just because he had a disappointing season.
What can we expect from Kemp in 2012?
Crasnick: Kemp is only 27, and he has the ability to be a 30-30 player for years to come. And he's appeared in 637 of a possible 648 games over the past four years, so he loves to play. My big concern is how the contract will affect him personally. A lot of players either press to justify earning that kind of money or slack off because they have more security and get comfortable. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kemp struggle out of the gate a little bit next year because of all the attention and focus the contract is going to bring his way. And opponents are really going to be honing in on him, so it's going to be tough for him to put up the same kind of numbers.
Jackson: He has only played one season in his career in which he was under contract for the following season, and that didn't go so well (at least by the standards of what we have come to expect from him). Now, he has big-time financial security. Will he continue to work hard and strive to improve, or will he decide the level he has reached is good enough? We'll see.
Shelburne: At some point teams will decide they are not going to let Kemp beat them anymore. That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Andre Ethier, Jerry Sands and Juan Rivera. If two of those three players respond, it frees up Kemp for another stellar season. If not, he's not going to see many good pitches to hit. The only thing keeping teams from walking him every at-bat is Kemp's ability to steal bases.
Shoenfield: I don't expect Kemp to match his 2011 numbers, but if he exceeds his career triple-slash line, he'd still be one of the best all-around players on the game and I think he'll surpass that career line.
Weisman: So much clicked for Kemp in 2011 that I think you have to be prepared for things to go not quite as well. But as much as he did improve in 2011, he left room for more in the coming year. Plus you have to think he'll be eager to prove he's not going to coast with his big contract. So while anything can happen, I'm expecting a season that's close to the neighborhood of the one he just delivered. "Kemp-adjacent."
Is Kemp's game still growing? What can he improve on?
Crasnick: According to the Bill James plus-minus defensive ratings, Kemp ranked 35th among big league center fielders in runs saved in 2010 and improved to 22nd last year. Even though he won a Gold Glove, defense is a potential area of improvement for him.
Jackson: No matter how long you play this game, you can always improve. He still has a tendency (although not nearly as often as he used to) to chase that low, outside breaking ball, the one he used to almost always get on a two-strike count because he couldn't lay off it. Now, he lays off it most of the time, but not all the time. And, he needs to continue to cut down on his strikeouts, which dropped from one every 3.9 plate appearances in 2010 to one every 4.3 PAs in 2011. In 2009, his first breakout year that earned him that two-year contract that just expired, he struck out once every 4.8 PAs. That's a good number to shoot for in 2012, but even for a middle-of-the-order power hitter, it's still probably a touch too high.
Shelburne: This is a scary thought for the rest of the league, but yes, Kemp's game is still growing. I really believe he's just scratching the surface of his abilities as a hitter in terms of approach, discipline and pitch selection. Pitchers are going to be careful with Kemp next season. His biggest growth is going to come in the way he adjusts to that.
Shoenfield: The big question is whether he can take his defensive game to a higher level (the Gold Gloves notwithstanding). Or is he guy that will have to move to right field in a few years when/if he loses a step.
Weisman: Kemp's batting eye seemed much-improved in 2011. But while he drew 21 more walks this past season, that includes an increase of 20 intentional walks -- more a sign of respect than a transformation into Ted Williams. So Kemp could still do better. And while you don't want him to change what's working, if he did manage to cut down his strikeouts further, who knows what that might mean? There's also a nagging sense that Kemp's first step on fly balls defensively could be better, and it's worth nothing that he stole only seven bases in 13 attempts over the season's final 38 games. It does feel like, after an MVP-worthy season, that this counts as nitpicking, though.
With the Dodgers devoting so much money to him, is Kemp a well-founded investment?
Crasnick: I think it's a good investment in light of his youth, diverse skill set, durability and the fact that he provides big-time offensive production at an important, up-the-middle defensive position. But I'd be lying if I said I was 100 percent sold on Kemp as a long-term investment. Even the Dodgers admit that he "went Hollywood" a couple of years ago. Can he remain focused and not let the money and the attention go to his head? I'd like to see him do it for more than one year before I'm convinced.
Jackson: We won't know that for a long time, but there is a reason why the Dodgers historically have been reluctant to award contracts of longer than three years -- and why, when they have, they haven't usually had good luck with it (think Juan Pierre, Kevin Brown, J.D. Drew). One thing we do know: it won't be Frank McCourt's problem to worry about.
Shelburne: A lot of people have a hard time swallowing the length of Kemp's deal. Remember, though, that Kemp is just 27. You worry that his speed will fall off in the latter part of the contract, but I think his power numbers and batting average will remain about the same so long as he continues to evolve as a hitter and the Dodgers get him some protection in the lineup. That's about all you can ask for a Gold Glove center fielder who plays every day, has already learned how to bounce back from a subpar year and is showing signs of becoming a clubhouse leader.
Shoenfield: The investment seems pretty sound, especially considering Kemp's durability and apparent commitment he displayed in 2011. If you're going to spend that much, spend it on a guy who plays an up-the-middle position.
Weisman: It's much better to invest in greatness with the risk that it might decline into goodness, than try to get by with mediocrity on the cheap. Even with an eight-year deal, Kemp will still only be 35 by the time it expires. He will have his ups and downs, but the alternative -- life without Kemp -- is pretty frightening.
Five years from now, Matt Kemp will …
Crasnick: In five years, Kemp will have three or four All-Star Games under his belt and be regarded as one of the best players in the game at his position. But he's a big guy, and he's going to incur his share of wear-and-tear in center field. By the time he's 33, I can see him slowing down enough in center that the Dodgers have to start thinking about transitioning him to a corner outfield spot.
Jackson: Again, if he can continue to focus on baseball as he did in 2011, he'll be fine. But Los Angeles can be a veritable playground for a young, star-caliber athlete with a lot of disposable income. Kemp managed to avoid distractions in 2011. Not so much in 2010.
Shelburne: Best-case scenario, Kemp will be a perennial All-Star and competing with Blake Griffin as the most popular athlete in Los Angeles. Worst case scenario, he's Alfonso Soriano. A lot of people think the worst-case scenario is Vernon Wells. That's a bit drastic. Even in his worst season (2010) Kemp still hit .249 with 28 home runs and 89 RBIs. Those are Soriano-type numbers, not Wellsian. I think the reality will be somewhere in between. Think Matt Holliday with more speed.
Shoenfield: Kemp will be leading the Dodgers to the division title after starting in his fifth All-Star Game and topping 30 home runs for the third time in his career.
Weisman: … be the best right fielder in the National League.