Matt Kemp signing a $160 million dollar, 8-year deal during the 2011 offseason was my worst nightmare. Coming off the heels of a gargantuan MVP-caliber campaign, my presumption was that Kemp (who I have for years lovingly referred to as Matty Franchise) and his agent Dave Stewart would push for a proportionally gargantuan long-term contract extension. Beyond the fact that he now stands a mere 365 days away from hitting the free agent market, I knew that such a deal would be well-deserved; in what baseball universe does a 27 year-old, 5-tool free agent not come out of a hot stove winter without a 6 figure contract? I predicted that a pact like this was in the works - I just would have guessed it would be with any team besides the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This agreement would be the 7th largest deal in the history of Major League Baseball. It would be the highest ever for a center fielder and the second highest ever for a black athlete, slightly under CC Sabathia’s $161 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees. Upon hearing the news yesterday, a strange sensation came over me. For so long I have preached and howled about how the Los Angeles Dodgers operate like they’re the Kansas City Dodgers or the Chavez Ravine Indians. I’ve railed against Frank McCourt for not being able to give the Blue Crew the small edges they’ve lacked, the absence of those edges most likely costing them a pennant and maybe even more. No one questions whether or not the Yankees are going to lose Robinson Cano when he becomes a free agent in two years. There was no sense of trepidation for whether or not the Red Sox were going to retain the services of Jon Lester. Justin Verlander will be in Detroit as long as they want him. For the last two years, the only newsworthy items I’ve heard the Dodgers involved in were either on the wavelength of Mark Ellis, Jon Garland or Casey Blake, or were smattered with the words “proceeding” or “injunction.” In fact, the only positive news that I've gotten over the past year was about a sale. A sale! Someone sold something, and that was the best news we’ve had in over two years.
It was absolutely strange to see the Dodgers acting like the team I’ve always known they should have been. Expecting the expected is a foreign feeling. They made a deal that should have been a given. I am not at all concerned about the Yankees keeping Robinson Cano for as long as they want him. This happened in Los Angeles yesterday. We were the National League Yankees.
Matthew Ryan Kemp deserves this deal. He has earned this money with his drive, talent and hunger. He rightly has merited the commitment from the Dodgers that he has mirrored on the field and in the clubhouse. The numbers should speak for themselves; in the previous 4 seasons, Kemp has averaged 28 homers, 97 RBI, 98 runs scored, 32 stolen bases and an .847 OPS. He has played (for the most part) world class defense in center field. In an era where medical breakthroughs keep athletes stronger than their bones and joints can bear, Kemp has managed to keep his body tuned and intact. He has averaged 159 games since 2008, and has missed none the past 2 seasons. He nearly had a 40 home run, 40 steal season last year, falling one stray fly ball short. He is one of the best all-around players in the game. Maybe even the best. But that's an argument for another time.
What these numbers don't reflect is Kemp's work ethic and acceptance of leadership. His 2010 season was picked apart by critic and fan alike. The sad part is, in a world where 90% of sports criticism is unjust or unsupported, all of the barbs thrown Kemp’s way seemed not only righteous, but perhaps even slightly understated. His numbers were down all around the board - his .760 OPS was a career low, as well as his .249 batting average, 170 strikeouts and stealing nearly as many bases (19) as he was caught (15). More than just his offense, his defense (which had garnered him a Gold Glove a year earlier) had fallen far beyond his normal standards of excellence. Kemp looked distracted and aloof. Every sign that he had given the previous two seasons of becoming the new franchise cornerstone seemed to have evaporated under the hot California sun. We all had hope of him being mentioned amongst the likes of Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Fernando Valenzuela. Suddenly, his course seemed altered towards different direction; that of Adrian Beltre and Raul Mondesi, guys whose natural gifts should have led them to early stardom, but whose immaturity and lack of focus led them straight off the Dodgers' roster. Kemp spent the offseason with pundits questioning his character, drive and desire. Many wondered if Kemp, a good looking poor black kid from bad part of Oklahoma City, could withstand the pressures of instant stardom in Los Angeles, and all the perks that come with such a burden. In short, Kemp lacked discipline in nearly every facet of his game.
To all of this, the Franchise responded with the best season of his young career. He maintained better plate discipline, walking a career-high 74 times. His batting average went up 75 points and touched more than 80 more bases. His stolen base percentage increased to nearly 80%, as opposed to the near 60% he had during his much-maligned 2010 season. Kemp's defense improved as well, earning him his second Gold Glove. Most importantly, he kept his focus sharp during one of the most distracting and disgraceful publicity nightmares in the history of Major League Baseball. Every 2011 statistic of his that you just read, Kemp put up while being the only person in the lineup to more than 16 home runs or have an OPS in the .800’s. Every expectation that was put on him from his 52 game stint in 2006 when he hit 7 home runs in a week, he met and exceeded. It wasn't entirely exceptional that he achieved what he did in 2011; what is exceptional was the conditions he did it under. This contract just isn't about numbers. It's about how he achieved those numbers. That's the mark of a Franchise.
Matt Kemp will very shortly sign the biggest contract in Los Angeles or Brooklyn Dodger history by nearly $55 million dollars. This extension is worthy approximately 2/5 of the price that Frank McCourt paid to buy the team 7 years ago. Beyond those astonishing figures, this contract is important for so many more reasons.
The Dodgers wouldn't just hand out this type of deal to just anyone; as I’ve stated, they’ve never handed out this deal to anyone, ever. After all, this is the franchise that was unwilling to re-sign future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, arguably the greatest offensive player ever at that position. The Dodgers believe in Matt Kemp. He is worth more to the team as currently constituted than Jayson Werth, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez or Troy Tulowitzki, all guys who will or have signed for deals comparable to the one that Kemp just signed.
The Dodgers are on the precipice of being The Dodgers again. Or perhaps I should say, with the right person in charge, they perhaps are heading back towards being the Dodgers again. With this responsibility of being a cornerstone franchise, the team needs a player to lay the foundation for success, much like Albert Pujols in St. Louis, Derek Jeter in New York, Josh Hamilton in Texas or Ryan Braun in Milwaukee. The Dodgers want Kemp’s play and his face to dictate the next decade of Los Angeles baseball. Matt Kemp may have just become the most important player in the National League. I’m not sure they could have gotten a better guy to build upon.
Welcome back, Los Angeles. Expecting the expected feels strange. Hopefully, I’ll have more reasons and this sensation will pass. I couldn’t think of a better 160 million ways to feel normal again.