Joe Torre backs Matt Kemp

Updated: April 10, 2012, 4:09 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre declared Matt Kemp, the team's All-Star center fielder, the best player in baseball before the Dodgers home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, although Torre did add a qualifier.

"Because of (Kemp's) age (27) and everything else, he is probably the best player in the game at this point," said Torre, who attended the game in his current capacity as executive vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner's office.

Torre managed Kemp for three seasons with the Dodgers, the last of which was tumultuous as Kemp's offensive production dropped off precipitously and the mega-talented outfielder seemed to sulk at times, eliciting public criticism from members of the coaching staff.

But last season, after Torre retired from managing and his longtime hitting coach, Don Mattingly, took over as Dodgers manager, a seemingly more focused Kemp had a career year, leading the National League with 39 homers and 126 RBIs, hitting .324, stealing 40 bases and making his first NL All-Star team before finishing second in Most Valuable Player balloting.

"I think he was embarrassed by what happened a couple of years ago," Torre said. "He grew up. I think (it's a matter of) maturity, and the start he has gotten off to this year to obviously build on what he did last year."

Kemp was named on Monday as the NL Player of the Week for the abbreviated first week of the season, which for Kemp meant hitting .412 (7 for 17) with two home runs, six runs scored, eight RBIs and 14 total bases in four games.

Torre conceded that at times, Kemp was a difficult player for him to manage.

"He was challenging because just like a lot of young players, they are going to make adjustments on their own, but he was so talented -- and again, this is just my opinion -- that I think he just felt his ability was going to speak for itself," Kemp said. "He sort of eliminated the highs and lows once he got established in a more businesslike way. I know he and Donnie have a good relationship, which is hugely important.

"I remember telling him as I was saying goodbye when I stopped managing, 'You're going to love playing for Donnie.' "

Torre's relationship with Kemp wasn't always so smooth.

"Obviously, there were times when I didn't like what was happening," Torre said. "We didn't always agree, but I think (Kemp's performance) bothered him. Overally, we kept working at it, let's put it that way."

Torre said one thing he always liked about Kemp was his desire to be in the lineup.

"He has always been a kid who wants to play every single day, and you like to see that," Torre said. "I am really proud of what he has done, and I have told him that a time or two. You're happy for him, because he was a good kid."

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com