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Matt Kemp Is Key High-Risk, High-Reward Trade Target in Weakened Hitting Market

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 29:  Matt Kemp #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers watches his second two run home run of the game in the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves at Dodger Stadium on July 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Trading for Matt Kemp shouldn't feel like an equivalent to hitting on 17 in blackjack. And yet, there are a few good reasons for why it does.

We'll get to that. But first, we should clarify that it is sounding more and more like the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to trade Kemp this winter.

When the winter began, it seemed far more likely the Dodgers would resolve their outfield logjam by trading Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier rather than Kemp. After all, why would they rush to deal a guy who posted an .852 OPS with 25 home runs in 2014?

But then Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported in November that the interest in Kemp was too serious for the Dodgers to ignore. More recently, he wrote about how "a lot of time sure seems to be spent on finding a suitor," indicating the Dodgers have gone beyond mere due diligence.

One is left with the sense that the sheer demand for Kemp has pushed the Dodgers into "no choice" territory. That really isn't hard to believe given the current state of MLB and its offseason market. Everyone needs bats, and there aren't many readily available.

Hanley Ramirez, of course, left the Dodgers for the Red Sox.
Hanley Ramirez, of course, left the Dodgers for the Red Sox.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

A month ago, the likes of Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Yasmany Tomas, Nelson Cruz, Billy Butler, Adam LaRoche and Michael Cuddyer were looking for work. Now they're all spoken for, and the open market has few, if any, impact bats left.

Kemp's most recent offensive performance is certainly one reason why he's attracting so much trade attention. The other is that, unlike fellow high-end trade chip Justin Upton, Kemp comes with controllability. His contract runs through 2019.

True, Kemp's deal also still owes him $107 million. But a team that deals for him may convince the Dodgers to eat some of that, and Grantland's Ben Lindbergh argued that even $107 million "isn’t much more than he’d make as a free agent."

So all told, here's the situation: Kemp seems to be legitimately available, teams have a darn good reason to be interested in him and his contract isn't a deal-breaker.

But while that's a solid recipe for a deal, it doesn't mean a trade for Kemp wouldn't come with risk. 

There's the obvious reality that dealing for him would cost a team more than just money, as the Dodgers likely won't be parting with Kemp unless they get either established or MLB-ready talent.

Beyond that, there's the betting nature of a potential deal for Kemp. It would mean betting heavy on his bat, but also betting against his age, durability, defense and speed.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 16:  Matt Kemp #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the dugout before the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 16, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Dodgers defeated the Diamondbacks 7-0.  (Photo by Christian Peterse
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Let's start with the age question mark, which is certainly a question mark knowing that Kemp is 30. Depending on who you ask, he's either reached the peak age for modern hitters or is already past it.

In 2010, J.C. Bradbury did a study for Baseball Prospectus that concluded "the peak age of baseball players appears to be around 29, and possibly 30 for hitters in modern times." But more recently, Jeff Zimmerman did a study for FanGraphs last winter that found modern hitters are peaking well before 30.

So yeah, whoever's looking to deal for Kemp can't plan on actually getting five good years out of him. If he's not already past his prime, his prime may only have one or two good years left.

That's if he stays healthy, of course, and anyone who knows about Kemp's injury history will know that's a pretty big if. 

Before playing in 150 games in 2014, Kemp managed only 179 games across 2012 and 2013 thanks mainly to hamstring, ankle and shoulder injuries. The latter two injuries needed to be repaired with fairly serious surgeries. Knowing this, he's not likely to defy the aforementioned studies and age gracefully.

Beyond the age and injury concerns, meanwhile, is the concern that Kemp isn't a well-rounded player anymore.

MLB's Worst Outfielders: 2013-2014
PlayerInnUZR/150
Matt Kemp1772.0-29.0
Michael Morse1159.1-25.9
Carlos Beltran1398.0-19.5
Raul Ibanez1005.1-18.3
Dexter Fowler1880.1-18.2
FanGraphs

Going forward, Kemp's overall value is more than likely going to be limited by his defense. That's partially because he's been relocated from center field to right field and partially because he's simply not a good defensive player. The FanGraphs figures to your left make that abundantly clear.

Also, Kemp has lost a step. After peaking with 40 steals in 2011, he managed only eight in 2014. Here's FanGraphs' Mike Petriello to explain how this is no mirage:

We have speed stats on the site, anyway, and they paint a clear picture:

2009: 7.0
2010: 5.5
2011: 6.2
2012: 5.0
2013: 4.9
2014: 4.2

None of which is unexpected. You get older, you overcome serious leg injuries, you get slower...

Remember that point about how the money remaining on Kemp's deal is basically market value?

That remains true, but all of the above is a reminder that market value isn't always "good" value. With the kind of serious red flags he has, there's a very good chance Kemp isn't going to be worth a lot of money over the next five years, much less a lot of money and valuable talent in a trade.

Here's guessing that the teams in on Kemp are aware of this to some degree or another. If so, that there's still so much interest in him could indicate they think his bat is a reward that justifies the risk.

To this end, there's room for more skepticism. But fortunately, there's even more room for optimism.

When we speak of the great offensive season Kemp just had, what we're really talking about is the great offensive second half he just had.

Though Kemp logged 69 fewer plate appearances, he still upped his home run total from eight in the first half to 17 in the second half. More impressively, he upped his OPS more than 200 points from .760 to .971.

Because a whole lot of extra success happened in a smaller time frame, Kemp's second half is fodder for the ol' "Yeah, but small sample size" argument. How do we know Kemp actually figured things out?

Oh, you know. Because we know for a fact that Kemp's surge didn't happen by accident.

Before Kemp got red hot in the second half, he first had to make some mechanical adjustments. To go back to a quote I'm about to reference for the umpteenth time, here's Dodgers assistant hitting coach John Valentin explaining said adjustments to Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register in July:

“He actually has straightened his stance. It used to be locked. What that created was a difficulty to have the freedom to stay through the baseball. This offers a clear path to hit balls in and away.”

For a visual representation of what Valentin was talking about, I suggest checking out an article by Alec Dopp at GammonsDaily.com. But with a little help from BaseballSavant.com, we can see that Valentin was dead on about how Kemp benefited from his adjustments:

Matt Kemp vs. Pitches In and Away
SplitAVG InSLUG InAVG AwaySLUG Away
1st Half.314.521.191.261
2nd Half.384.802.241.361
BaseballSavant.com

That's what it looks like when lesser plate coverage becomes superior plate coverage.

And the sight is especially encouraging in this case. Because extreme plate coverage was arguably Kemp's most impressive talent while he was racking up a .954 OPS between 2011 and 2012, it seems his old offensive self has well and truly returned.

That's a hell of a counterargument for Kemp's assorted red flags. Trading for him may mean paying a heavy price for a guy who's older, brittle, a poor defender and slow, but it also means trading for a guy who right now is one of the game's best hitters.

A player like that could transform a good team into a great team or a great team into a World Series favorite. And though I'm not sold that Kemp could turn a lowly team like the San Diego Padres into contenders on his own, he'd at least help make them respectable.

It sounds like somebody will be trading for Kemp. Whoever that somebody is would be rolling the dice on a volatile player. Of that, there is no doubt.

But since that somebody would also be rolling the dice on an elite bat at a time when elite bats are scarce in more ways than one, let's just say the word "crazy" wouldn't need a new definition in the dictionary.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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