The team with too many good outfielders

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Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp throws during spring training baseball practice in Glendale, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Dodgers' Kemp says he won't rush back this time

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp throws during spring training baseball practice in Glendale, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Matt Kemp was in a sleeveless T-shirt, the kind a man carves up 'cause, you know, gotta let the pythons breathe.

He leaned on the back of a chair in the Dodgers' clubhouse and, for comfort or emphasis – let's say the latter – folded his arms.

"You see this upper body, bro," he said. "You see these guns. I'm swoll. I'm a monster. Yeah, I look good now."

He laughed, half-playin', full-on serious.

"I feel good," he said. "I look good. I mean, as far as my body needs to be."

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You remember Matt Kemp. Best player in the game for a few months once? All grown up? Couldn't drag him off the field? Ran into a couple of walls? Blew a couple of hamstrings? A shoulder? An ankle? Became an afterthought?

Sometimes, baseball just trundles on without a guy. Some wild-ass Cuban kid shows up doing wild-ass things, a ballclub goes from 9 ½ back to 9 ½ up in, like, a weekend and plays into mid-October, and the best player in the game for a few months once is moved to point out, "I'm not a fourth outfielder."

Of course nobody – certainly nobody of significance – suggested such a thing, but it's been a bit since Matt Kemp was full-on Matt Kemp, and even a passing look at the Dodgers' roster reveals one more capable outfielder than is required in the typical major-league outfield. Carl Crawford showed up leaner and wanting to run again, Andre Ethier helped save 2013 by locking down center field, Yasiel Puig is the second coming of choose your favorite five-tool hero, and Kemp, maybe, is better than all of them. Least he was once, and he's still just 29, and have you seen the guns?

"How confident am I?" he said, repeating the question. "I'm still the player I've always been. I've been hurt, guys."

He'd taken his turn in the batting cage with the big boys – Hanley Ramirez, Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Ethier. They'd lined up those 60-mph heaters and wrecked them pretty good, the way they ought to be wrecked, even on Day One. Puig swung about as hard as he could, a man heaving a sledgehammer, so he looked ready. Ramirez lined ball after ball to right-center, smooth and easy, barely breaking a sweat.

And Kemp? Somewhere in between, steady over his left ankle (surgery, October 2013), extending through his left shoulder (surgery, October 2012 and October 2013), grinning (attitude adjustment, April 2011) and generally looking like the best athlete on the field. That is, until it came time for a full-squad lap around the complex. The team went left and Kemp went right, into the clubhouse, as his ankle isn't ready for running, and might not be when the Dodgers open their season late next month in Australia.

"I'm just grateful I can walk again," he said.

The four outfielders are here for that reason. And the fact Crawford hasn't been end-to-end sturdy for a couple years. And Ethier finished last season on a bum ankle. And Puig, for all his rookie-year excitement/drama, hit .214 in September and may still have some growing up to do himself.

Ethier hit .221 against lefties last season. Crawford hit .206 against them.

One day, the Dodgers might have to trade an outfielder. Today? Six weeks before they play a real game? Three months, at least, before anyone can know for sure who's healthy and who's productive and who's going to throw a fit when he sits for a day or two?

"There's people that make decisions on what the team's going to be," Ethier said, standing a few lockers from the Kemp scrum. "It's not my problem – not my issue – to worry about. We should be thinking about how to get this team rolling again, pick up where we were last year."

It'll be on Don Mattingly. Failing that, Ned Colletti. That's tomorrow's problem, issue, solution, whatever.

For today, one day, Matt Kemp is charming, laughing, hitting. Flexing. Not running. He believes he'll be him again, and soon. This is the player – the spirit of the redoubtable player – who hit 39 home runs and stole 40 bases in 2011 (and batted .324, and drove in 126 runs, and scored 115 runs), finished second in the MVP vote, and said, in all seriousness, he was gonna have to shoot for 50-50.


"Wow, it's been a lot," he said. "Makes you a better person. A tougher person. Like I said, everything happens for a reason."

He looks good again. He's got his body back, most of the way. He would call it "Swag." Or "Beast mode." Or something. And it all leads back to the same thing.

"I can hit," he said.

Not that he'd doubt it. Not that he had to assure anyone. But, you know, every once in a while, a man's got to put it out there, say the words, let it breathe.

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