Nine years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks each had a dynamic young outfielder you could build a team around. They were cornerstone players with a heady mix of speed and power, poised to lead their teams in a battle for National League West supremacy for years to come.
Things didn’t quite work out that way for Matt Kemp and Justin Upton.
Promise, then pushed out
Which is not to say those were lost years, of course. Kemp stayed with the Dodgers through the 2014 season, slashing an average of .290/.350/.495 along with 24 home runs and 22 stolen bases over his seven full seasons in Los Angeles. Ryan Braun stole Kemp’s NL MVP trophy in 2011 but Kemp’s team won four NL West titles, reaching the league championship series in three of those campaigns.
Somehow it didn’t seem like enough. Kemp, despite the numbers, was perceived as a problem — sometimes surly, sometimes spectacular. Confounding in the outfield and sloppy on the base paths. Even at his best, never quite a polished product.
When Kemp was traded to San Diego before the 2015 season, the breakup felt ugly, raw. It took four more years (and 40 fewer pounds) for those wounds to start healing.
Upton spent four full seasons in Arizona, posting an annual .286/.362/.485 line for the Snakes while smacking, on average, 23 home runs and swiping 19 stolen bases.
Upton finished fourth in the 2011 NL MVP voting (Prince Fielder finished third, for the record) but the Diamondbacks managed to win just a single division title (also in 2011) during his tenure in Phoenix.
Maybe expectations were out of whack but Upton, like Kemp, never really seemed to reach his true potential, either.
Upton was sent to the Braves before the 2013 season and actually played alongside Kemp in the Padres outfield in 2015, where the two combined to hit 49 home runs and collect 181 RBI. Kemp’s shoddy defense pushed his WAR down to 0.6 while Upton — an All-Star that season — posted a WAR of 4.4. San Diego won 74 games and finished in fourth place in the division.
The paths diverge
After the initial SoCal experience, Upton drifted to Detroit. Kemp was traded late in the 2016 season, lambasted by Padres ownership on his way out the door, and ended up serving his own tour of duty in Atlanta.
Upton was sent to the Angels late last season and re-signed in November for $106 million. Kemp shifted back to Los Angeles in December as a piece in a financial chess move that is still playing itself out.
But for the moment, here we are, and Matt Kemp and Justin Upton are in each the left fielders in Los Angeles, orbiting each other once again. They are living out their own Major League Baseball version of This Is Us, a story full of little coincidences and paths that cross in serendipitous patterns.
And now we see two players whose careers are poised to head in very different directions.
Justin Upton: In his prime
Once upon a time, there was no bigger sports story in the nation than who had the best star outfielder — the Dodgers, or their intracity rivals.
Upton and Kemp aren’t exactly Mickey, Willie and The Duke, but they are compelling figures.
Upton is nearly four years younger than Kemp and coming off a 35-home run, .904 OPS and 135 OPS+ campaign in 2017 that included an All-Star appearance and his third Silver Slugger award. He is the Halos’ starting left fielder and likely locked into the number-three slot in the Angels’ lineup, tucked comfortably between Mike Trout and some combination of Albert Pujols, Shohei Ohtani or Zack Cozart.
Although Upton’s attitude has been questioned — he was allegedly driven out of Arizona for “playing too suave” — he’s never been perceived as a troublemaker or a cancer. He’s a pro who rakes.
Matt Kemp: Candidate for a late-career renaissance?
Kemp — well, let’s look at the upside. Newly lean(-ish), surrounded by friends and well-wishers and protected from his own defensive ineptitude by speedy Chris Taylor in center field (cue Ender Inciarte saying, “Good luck”). His troubled hamstrings are apparently fine. Kemp may be on the verge of a late-career renaissance.
That’s what a lot Dodger fans want to believe. The prodigal son comes home, plays a key role in a championship run and all of the rough edges from the past are smoothed out, forgiven, forgotten. He pulls a Darryl Strawberry. It’s a great narrative.
The problem with narratives? They’re just stories.
Here’s the thing: when you consider Upton’s position in the game in relation to Kemp, you start to see the narrative fall apart. Upton is what a legit $20-million-a-year left fielder looks like. It’s a guy who plays 150 games a season. A guy who isn’t a locker room time bomb waiting to go off. A guy who wins awards and goes to All Star games. That’s not Kemp anymore.
Comparing Kemp to Upton isn’t completely fair. Kemp’s three years older with a more complicated injury history. Kemp’s numbers in his age-30 season (2014, his last with the Dodgers) were .287/.346/.506 with 25 home runs and a fat 140 OPS+ — offensive production comparable to Upton’s age-30 year in 2017 — but even then, Kemp’s WAR was only 1.4 thanks to his terrible base running and defense.
There have been plenty of stories about Kemp showing up to camp this season in shape. He’s drinking more water and eating smaller portions, according to Andy McCullough. Terrific. Let’s see how that plays out on the field. Kemp allegedly came into Braves’ camp in great shape in 2017, and he ended up overweight and expendable.
The 2017 Kemp played in 115 games, suffered through hamstring issues, allowed -17 defensive runs above average as one of the worst outfielders in the game and failed to steal a base for the first time in his Major League career (he only stole one in 2016, but still). He grounded into a league-high 25 double plays. Read this review of his work last season and you feel a lot less warm and fuzzy about Kemp’s return.
Bad hammys? Bad defense? Basepath problems? Sounds familiar.
On the plus side— well, he wasn’t bad, not necessarily. Kemp slugged .464 and hit 19 home runs. His plate discipline numbers were in line with what he’s posted throughout his career. He saw more changeups, percentage-wise than he had in years past last season, which may be a good way to fool a somewhat lazy, oft-injured slugger on a bad team who wants to sit on fastballs.
Kemp’s Baseball Reference projections for 2018 have him at .262/.309/.464 with 22 home runs in 79 fewer plate appearances than Upton. But — as Kemp posted on Instagram Friday night — “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. #motivated.”
If the man formerly known as The Bison truly is motivated to stay in shape and do Bison things, and manages to somehow win the left field job outright, stay healthy and remain friendly with his teammates and the organization, we may find ourselves in a truly interesting position.
But folks, sentimentality aside, that’s not going to happen.
The Matt Kemp deja vu lingers. Will he?
Young Matt Kemp found himself blocked by Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre in 2006. Now old Matt Kemp could, theoretically, be blocking Alex Verdugo. Baseball can be a funny game.
Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi won’t let that play out. Unless old Matt Kemp somehow proves himself to be a completely changed man this spring, he’ll be gone before real innings are played.
Like much of the fan base (and Kenley Jansen), I’m rooting for Kemp. I’d love to see this work. Kemp was my favorite player for years, and I was a big Kemp defender when others would gripe about his issues.
I lived in Buffalo for years, and remember traveling to see Kemp play live in Pittsburgh. As an East Coast Dodgers fan, the guys take on a kind of mythical status, and when I finally got to see him in person —wow, that’s Matt Kemp, right there. It was emotional.
But I know that sports stories usually don’t work out the way we want. More likely, we’ll see him end up somewhere like Tampa, Toronto or Cleveland, somewhere he can DH and a play left field part-time, a chess piece in a larger swap. Then, in all likelihood, he’ll get pushed down the road again, a victim of his own bloated contract.
He had a chance to be the king of L.A. once — now he’s a well-paid pawn.
Matt Kemp as a Dodger in October? August? April? I just don’t see it.
(FOLLOW BEN ON TWITTER: @BK77)