Just two seasons ago, Matt Kemp was at the pinnacle of what appeared to be a Hall of Fame caliber career. The star center fielder, freshly 26 at the end of the 2011 season, signed a massive contract that would keep him in Dodger blue for the next eight seasons for $160 million. The stage was set for one of the brightest stars in baseball to cement his legacy. Two short years later, he may be the odd man out in a crowded Dodger outfield. With such high expectations to live up to, it should not come as a surprise that Kemp will not accept a bench role for the upcoming 2014 season.
After all, this is a player who established himself as one of the game’s very best in 2011. He finished second in the MVP race after batting .324 with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in. He swiped 40 bases, narrowly missing becoming one of the game’s rare 40-40 men. He led the league in total bases. When commentators called Kemp one of baseball’s most talented players, they had ample evidence to back up the claims.
Then came the injury problems. After an incredible start to the 2012 season that saw him pick up right where he left off after his outstanding 2011 campaign, Kemp hit the disabled list on May 14 with hamstring issues. This was a noteworthy event at the time, as the injury prevented the usually durable Kemp from continuing his streak of 399 consecutive games played. Unfortunately for the slugging Los Angeles outfielder, durable was no longer an adjective that would be used to describe him going forward. There is no question Kemp is using this new reputation as an injury-prone player as motivation to prove himself worthy of a starting job next year rather than sitting back and accepting a bench role.
Almost immediately after returning from the disabled list, Kemp re-aggravated his hamstring injury while running the bases and had to go back to inactive status. He would go on to miss almost two months before returning, although he was still voted into the All-Star game for his impressive numbers. A late season crash into the fence at Coors Field further contributed to his physical woes, and although he played through the pain, he ultimately sought out shoulder surgery in the off-season. Despite finishing with impressive numbers for the 2012 season, Kemp managed to play in only 106 games. Unknown to anyone at the time, these issues foreshadowed what was to become an even more injury-marred 2013 campaign.
With the negative effects of the shoulder surgery still lingering, Kemp started the next season in a cold spell and wound up back on the disabled list with all-too-familiar hamstring problems in late May. He would return to the field in late June only to wind up back on the disabled list on July 8 due to feeling pain in his shoulder–the same shoulder he had surgery performed on prior to the season. While this setback did not keep him out long, he immediately found himself out again after an ankle injury resulting from a play at home plate. This injury would keep him sidelined for the remainder of what turned into a very disappointing season for Kemp.
Kemp’s injury problems coupled with the emerging talent of international sensation Yasiel Puig, the return of Carl Crawford, and a resurgent Andre Ethier have now forced the team to question which player may find himself without an every day job in 2014.
Considering the early career achievements of such an obviously talented player, it should come as no surprise that Kemp will not accept a bench role for the upcoming season. The 29-year-old should logically still have several prime seasons to offer, and the chance to give his employer a good return on their massive investment has not passed. On a positive note, a crowded outfield situation will not keep someone of Kemp’s pedigree down if his health permits him to play every day.
By Spencer Hendricks