On Saturday, the Cincinnati Reds announced the release of outfielder Matt Kemp, still on the injured list with a broken left rib. It has been a rough season for Kemp, posting a -0.7 fWAR through 20 games. Combining that with Jesse Winker’s breakout season and the call up of Nick Senzel, Kemp was essentially left as the 6th outfielder. Now, he is a free agent and will have the freedom to sign with any team, but should any team want him? Does the former MVP runner-up still have anything left in the tank? Let’s dig deeper.
The first thing any team will look at when evaluating Kemp is his defense. In both 2016 and 2017, Kemp finished last in the league in Baseballsavant’s outs above average leaderboard. He was not much better in 2018, finishing 69th out of 87 qualified players. Over those three years, he has cost his team a total of 47 outs. At this stage in his career, Kemp is virtually unplayable at any outfield spot. Unfortunately for him, this takes away half the league as a potential suitor. An AL team looking for a right-handed DH would be the best fit for him, but is his bat good enough to warrant a signing? The numbers say yes.
It would be easy to ramble on about how bad he was with Cincinnati this year in his 62 plate appearances. This is because, well, he was really bad. It was not bad luck, either, as he stopped drawing walks, started striking out at an insanely high clip, and was unable to hit the ball hard. While he had been showing a positive trend in the past three years, his average exit velocity had been taking a massive plummet.
Looking at a much more telling sample size, 2018, Kemp was quite serviceable, sporting a 122 wRC+ across 500 plate appearances. Yes, his walk and strikeout rates were both below average, and his production was fueled by a high BABIP, but it is hard to refute this kind of expected statistics.
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While the optimist GM would look at 2018 as a rationale to sign Kemp, a more centered GM might separate that season into two halves. In the first half, Kemp’s wRC+ was 137. In the second half, just a mere 97.
This is concerning as it shows Kemp’s production hasn’t been at a high level in ten months. Many attribute this decline to the physical shape of Kemp. At the start of 2018, a talking point was how he was in the best shape of his life and all the weight he had lost in the offseason. Surely enough, skinny Kemp ripped the cover off the baseball for the first few months. As the season went on, Kemp slowly put the weight back on and with it, his performance dipped. Kemp came into camp this year looking the same as the end of last season, and predictably, his offensive and defensive output suffered.
One thing that Kemp does have going for him is his ability to still hit southpaws. All of his struggles this year came against right-handed pitchers, and if the Reds had gone up against more lefties, Kemp would most likely still have a job. Kemp’s career wRC+ against lefties is 143, compared to 113 against right-handers. Below, barring the outlier seasons of 2014 and 2017, the blue has pretty consistently remained above the red.
As mentioned earlier, Kemp is unplayable in the field, so he’d have to go to an AL team looking for help against lefties. An obvious fit would be the Indians, where he could platoon with Jake Bauers and Carlos Gonzalez at DH. Another landing spot could be New York, where Kemp could help bridge the gap until Judge and Stanton recover from their injuries. New York also has a smaller outfield, so if the Yankees are forced to play him in the field, they’d be able to hide his deficiencies better than most teams could.
Of course, for any of this to make sense Kemp would have to get healthy himself, and as of now, it is unclear as to when he would resume baseball activities. Kemp is certainly nowhere near the player eight years ago when he signed a $160M extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in the right situation, he may have just enough left to help a team contend. The pressure is on for Kemp, though, as a couple more dreadful months and his career will be in serious jeopardy.