Matt Kemp probably should have been MVP once, and then he publicly mused about a 50-50 season, and in the two seasons since he has 29 home runs and 18 stolen bases and turned 29 years old.
He maneuvered through October on crutches, so he will spend another winter rehabbing and will return in the spring to a standing-room-only Los Angeles Dodgers outfield, assuming he returns to the Dodgers at all.
Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, is not shopping Kemp. His telephone rings and he picks it up and sometimes it's about Kemp, because other general managers count the Dodgers' outfielders – Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Kemp – and come up with four. Still, six years and $130 million remain on Kemp's contract, which isn't too much for a near-MVP, but it's rather pricy for an outfielder averaging about 90 games over the past two seasons and has hit six home runs in his last 274 at-bats.
He borrowed Beastmode from Juan Pierre and brought it to the masses, and it played well. He was big, strong and fast. And young. He played every day. He transformed himself from a bit of a moper to a team leader, and then the injuries came, and so did Puig, and Ethier played a fine center field, and the Dodgers won some October games.
The last time it appeared Kemp had outstayed his welcome in Los Angeles, when the keep-him-or-trade-him debate raged, he responded with his 39-40 season. He played hard – and smarter – for Don Mattingly, finishing the 2011 season 13 batting average points from a Triple Crown.
So what now?
Maybe the Seattle Mariners. Maybe the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. The Texas Rangers? The Dodgers in return would get some prospects, a live arm or two (and the farm system could use them), and cover some – or a good portion – of that $130 million still owed, and move forward with the three outfielders they have.
So, suddenly Kemp has gone fragile, and what the Dodgers must determine is whether he's had a run of bad luck or he's just that guy, at 29. The phone rings for a reason, and that is because Kemp is just those two years from one of the great seasons in Dodgers history. If the ankle heals, and the elasticity in the shoulder comes back, and if the hamstrings hold, then Kemp is Kemp, and one of the five-tool forces in the game. Today, there's no way of knowing any of that, which is why the Dodgers should listen in on trade conversations but know they'd be selling low. They don't have money problems. A new television deal is coming. The ballpark is full. He remains one of L.A.'s bigger stars.
The risk isn't in holding onto Kemp, and sorting through a four-man outfield, and learning that Kemp just isn't that guy anymore. The risk is in discovering he is that guy again, in Seattle, or Boston, or New York, or Texas.
There is more to consider. Crawford played 116 games last season, 31 the season before that, and 130 the season before that. Only once in the past four seasons has Ethier played more than 142 games. Puig runs into everything and everybody.
So, yes, Kemp's body might not be holding up, and that contract ain't getting any cheaper, and the Dodgers could have too many outfielders and not enough outfield. But he has years of prime left, and a winter to heal, and a resume that says he can play the game with anyone. There was a time when he was worth the wait. Worth the patience. (And worth the money.) It's still that time.