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November 18, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Kemp Stays in LA

by R.J. Anderson

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed OF-R Matt Kemp to an eight-year extension worth $160 million. [11/14]

It does not suck to be Matt Kemp. He may not win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, but he should remain in high spirits after agreeing to an extension with a $20 million average annual value.

The extension comes on the heels of a career season for Kemp, who hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 home runs in 2011. A prospective free agent-to-be after the 2012 season, Kemp set the stage for himself by setting career-highs in nearly every conceivable category, including Wins Above Replacement Player (8.9, eclipsing his previous career high of 5.5). With the Dodgers’ ownership and therefore financial situation in disarray, there had to be a sense of pessimism within the fan base and front office about their chances of retaining Kemp’s services, and yet here we are. Kemp’s new contract calls for him to play his baseball with the Dodgers through his 35th birthday. 

The early consensus on the signing goes something like this: superstar contract for a player who has only shown glimpses of being a superstar. At least half of that thought is correct. Kemp becomes the 16th player to sign a contract with an annual average value equaling or exceeding $20 million and the third active outfielder with such a deal, joining Ryan Braun and Carl Crawford. Comparing Kemp to Braun or Crawford is an imperfect science. Braun’s five-year extension with an annual average value of $21 million was just an addition to a pre-existing contract. Crawford, meanwhile, received his payday on the open market. Still, the perception of these players following the season prior to signing their big deals probably goes against reality. Just consider their statistics:

Player

BA/OBP/SLG

WARP/600 PA

AAV

Crawford (through 2010)

.296/.337/.444

3.66

$20M

Braun (through 2010)

.307/.364/.554

4

$21M

Kemp (through 2011)

.294/.350/.496

4.05

$20M

No, WARP/600 PA is not a fancy new creation from Colin Wyers’s lab. Rather, it is just the rate measure of the player’s production to date prorated to a season’s worth of playing time, thus enabling comparisons across various playing time plateaus. Since WARP also takes into account park-adjusted offensive numbers and Kemp plays in a pitcher’s park, his contributions hold more weight when viewed in the raw slash line form.  There will be some who point out that Kemp’s WARP numbers are skewed due to his big 2011 season, and others that suggest that his position is the reason why his defensive metrics are what they are. Both are valid concerns, however, those same concerns apply to Crawford.

What matters more to the Dodgers than Kemp’s past is his future. Blessed with a power and speed blend, Kemp’s nickname—The Bison—fits. Add in the cannon arm and contact ability, and Kemp has the tools of a special player. It appears that Kemp may have taken a step forward in his plate approach, too, as he walked in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances for the first time in his major league career in 2011. Another aspect of Kemp’s game that he showed progress with this season is his baserunning. Dodgers’ third base coach Davey Lopes received credit throughout the season in helping fine tune Kemp’s baserunning, and the results were a career-high steals total (at a 78 percent success rate) and career-high Equivalent Base Running Runs (4.6).

Kemp will need to continue to produce on the basepaths heading forward, because he is unlikely to post a .350 True Average again. That is not a knock against his skills, just the reality of the situation. From 2007-2010, six players with 500-plus plate appearances managed .350 True Averages or higher, and only two (Albert Pujols in 2008-2009 and Miguel Cabrera in 2010-2011) managed to top .350 in the next season. Kemp seems more likely to post a True Average closer to his career-.298 heading forward.

This is where the questions about Kemp’s defense and future positions again come into play. At some point Kemp is going to move to a corner outfield spot; it is to anyone’s guess as to whether that comes after Andre Ethier leaves or if it is put off until Kemp reaches the wrong side of 30. In the interim, Kemp’s value metrics are going to take a beating due to his defense, with the degree depending on your defensive metric of choice. Even so, expecting Kemp to be a four-to-five-win player annually seems like a fair bet. If the market value of a win is in the four-to-five million range, or even higher with inflation, then Kemp making $20 million per season is just about right.

The other aspect to discuss is just how Kemp’s extension affects the Dodgers’ long-term plans. Shy of retaining Ethier, the Dodgers will have four expensive non-Kemp commitments after the 2012 season: Ted Lilly (one year $12 million), Chad Billingsley (two years, $23 million, with a $14 million club option in 2015), and Juan Uribe (one year, $7 million). The ambiguous one is Clayton Kershaw, who is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason and could be in line for his own massive deal.

Keep in mind that these are the Dodgers. Frank McCourt aside, this should be an organization able to throw around its financial girth more often than an isolated incident here and there. That should ease the qualm most people will have with handing Kemp a giant contract with a year of team control remaining. There is risk involved with any eight-year deal, and Kemp is not the exception. And yet, if Kemp has another big season, or if other teams in the league view him as a potential superstar, then the Dodgers may have saved themselves money by re-signing him now.  Add in the goodwill generated for a franchise that could use some, and the Dodgers are making a worthy enough gamble.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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