2011 is starting to feel like a long time ago.
That was the year Matt Kemp, then 26, looked poised to become one of the game's elite position players, putting up a .986 OPS for the Los Angeles Dodgers while playing everyday center field and finishing second in MVP voting only to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, largely because the Brewers made the playoffs and the Dodgers did not. He was the only real position player of note for the Dodgers that season and while Los Angeles fans were learning to love Clayton Kershaw, Kemp had more outgoing, natural charisma that won over the fanbase. The Dodgers wasted no time locking him into an 8-year, $160 million contract, and it was assumed that he'd be a centerpiece, face of the franchise player for years to come.
Then Kemp got hurt, and got hurt again, and got hurt even more, playing in only 106 games in 2012 and 73 games in 2013, and when he wasn't hurt, he saw a steady drop off in his production with occasional flashes of his former self. In the times when he was barely an above-average bat, it was hard to justify keeping him in the lineup with his poor center field defense.
Meanwhile the Dodgers got Carl Crawford, who wouldn't be taking playing time away from 2011 Matt Kemp (or even 2012 Matt Kemp), but who was a pretty attractive option at times compared to the 2013 model. More importantly, though, the Dodgers got Yasiel Puig -- who is looking basically like the franchise player the Dodgers thought they were getting out of Matt Kemp, though it's still early for him too -- and suddenly, with Andre Ethier still on the team and still being paid big money as well, reserve Scott Van Slyke productive, and prospect Joc Pederson knocking on the door, the Dodgers have a very crowded outfield.
So now, in 2014, Matt Kemp wants the Dodgers to play him every day -- preferably in center, but he's open to left field (he's open to right field, too, but he's not going to get it unless Puig goes on the DL) -- or he'd like to be traded. Since moving from center to left in late May, he largely has been an every day player, but Crawford was injured for most of that time, and now he's back. The message was delivered through Kemp's agent to Fox's Ken Rosenthal, and the language was as soft and undemanding as is possible in these kinds of statements, but it is what it is: Matt Kemp is making $20 million a year and he wants to be making that money to start baseball games.
Finding a team to take on a contract with almost $110 million remaining on it over the next five years for a declining center fielder who can't stay healthy is... asking a lot, to say the least. The Dodgers would likely have to eat a lot of money, maybe up to half of Kemp's salary each year for the rest of the deal, just to bring multiple teams to the table. At (effectively) $11 million a year for the next five years Kemp is a moderately high risk, high reward gamble -- he's young enough that it's not inconceivable he regains his 2011 form once he's able to stay healthy again for three or four months in a row -- and while Kemp doesn't fit very well as a centerfielder most places, he'd do just fine a leftfielder. There are a few sensible places for him to end up should the Dodgers elect to go this route and drum up trade partners:
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers are a good fit here because Kemp doesn't need to step in and be a superstar for the team's offense to still chug along quite nicely, and the team needs some sort of plan moving forward once Torii Hunter's deal expires this offseason. Of course, the team did just trade its supposedly-franchise first baseman this past winter because they viewed him as underperforming his big money contract. Adding between $50 and $60 million to payroll (if not more) for a guy with Kemp's question marks might be too much to stomach.
Seattle Mariners: Mariners fans won't like the idea of trading any of their organization's prospects AND taking on salary in the same deal, but if the Mariners want to make a dent in the AL West not just this year but in the foreseeable future, they're going to have to stop putzing around with scrapheap signings and second-tier prospects. Robinson Cano was a good start and Kyle Seager is having his first truly great season, but they need more quality bats in that lineup and there's a good chance Kemp can fit that bill. Even 2013-4 Kemp is a better hitter (109 OPS+) than the average Seattle Mariner this year (93 OPS+).
New York Yankees: This would be the most likely destination in a vacuum, though not until the offseason. The Yankees would likely ask the Dodgers to eat money, but they don't strictly need to from a financial perspective; they're the Yankees. Kemp's younger and has a lot more upside than the retreads they've been signing to do the corner outfield/DH bit the last few seasons, and if Kemp regains form a Brett Gardner/Jacoby Ellsbury/Kemp outfield could be formidable indeed.
If I had to guess, though? Kemp stays right where he is, and the Dodgers eat money sending someone else out of town -- Ethier or Crawford, most likely. Kemp's more or less hit the nadir of his value now, with the most expensive years of his contract kicking in while he's relegated to a support role for a division leader. It makes more sense to keep him, even beyond the wisdom of not trading an asset at its lowest point of value -- but even if the Dodgers are going to trade him, they should still be playing him every day. It's hard to build back value as a trade chip while sitting on the bench.