Few relationships between team and franchise player have been as rocky as the one between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Matt Kemp. It was easy to forget these bumps as the Dodgers rolled to an NL West title in 2013, but Kemp, the club's undisputed franchise face following a near-MVP season in 2011, is at a crossroads at age 29: Kemp played just 73 games in 2013 as he suffered multiple injuries, missed the entire playoffs and posted a career-low .723 OPS when he was healthy.
And so now, as baseball's winter meetings begin in Orlando, Kemp's future with the Dodgers is in doubt. Since as early as mid-November, trade rumors have suggested that Kemp could be on his way out of L.A. Seattle has been the team most strongly connected to Kemp, but the rumor mill of the winter meetings will surely add more -- according to Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal, the Dodgers are telling teams, "If you're interested in one of them, make us an offer," with "them" being Kemp and fellow outfielders Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford.
The problem for the Dodgers isn't necessarily Kemp's ability, or the ability of Ethier or Crawford. It's the presence of Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson, another potential young outfield star in the making. Everybody knows Puig, and it's likely they'll get to know Pederson soon: In 123 games at Double-A last season, Pederson mashed a career-best 22 home runs and hit .278/.381/.497 in what is generally a tough league for hitters. Pederson turns 22 in April and only raised his prospect stock with his great play last season.
Of the Dodgers' three veteran outfielders, it's clear that Kemp has been the best player throughout his career. He has by far the most innings in center field (6,601 to 654 for Ethier and 409 for Crawford). He has two .900 OPS seasons under his belt, whereas neither Ethier nor Crawford has ever eclipsed the mark. He has two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. Add to that a second-place MVP finish from 2011, an MVP award that many argued he deserved over Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (even before Braun's 2013 PED suspension).
But Kemp is owed by far the most money. Six years and $128 million remain on the eight-year, $160 million megadeal that he signed after his huge 2011 campaign, compared to four years and $69 million for Ethier and four years and $82.5 million for Crawford.
And here is where Kemp's rocky history with the Dodgers' front office comes in. Rewind to 2010, when Kemp was in the midst of his worst season yet. Until 2013's disastrous year, Kemp's .760 OPS in 2010 was the second worst of his career, and he was rated among the worst fielders in the league according to Ultimate Zone Rating (24 runs below average) and Defensive Runs Saved (37 runs below average). Kemp's effort on defense was an issue throughout the season. GM Ned Colletti slammed Kemp over the radio in April, less than a month into the season.
"The base running's below average, the defense is below average," Colletti said. "And you know, why is it? 'Cause he got a new deal? [Note: Kemp made $4 million in 2010, the first time he earned seven figures in his career.] Can't tell ya. But you know what? It's below average. If this was the last day of the season and people were voting for the Gold Glove, his name's not on the ballot. It's a shame he'd go from where he was a year ago to revert back to, when the ball's up in the air, we're not sure where it's going. Or if it's going to get caught. And that's not right."
This was the major salvo in what was an ongoing battle between Kemp and Colletti's front office (as well as former owner Frank McCourt) until Kemp's contract extension in 2011. Kemp told his agent Dave Stewart, "I can't live like this. Every time I come to the ballpark I sit here and I'm pissed off at him and it's taking away from what I want to do." According to both Kemp and Colletti, a series of heart-to-heart conversations during the 2010 season mended the relationship, but it's easy to wonder if Kemp's struggles in 2013 combined with the pair's prior issues only add to the Dodgers' willingness to jettison the two-time All-Star.
After the injury issues Kemp suffered last year -- shoulder, ankle and thigh ailments combined to cost him 89 games in 2013 -- it will be difficult for the Dodgers to find a trading partner without picking up a significant amount of his remaining salary. But players with Kemp's talent, as he showed in 2009, 2011 and 2012, are difficult to find. And if the Dodgers do trade Kemp right now, at the nadir of his value, it will almost certainly feel like the club is cutting the cord too early on such an electric player.