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Feel-good story: Kemp stars at Dodgers camp

Veteran outfielder playing way to spot in left field for LA
MLB.com @JPosnanski

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Dodgers announced they traded four players to the Braves -- and not just any four players, but five-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, three-time All-Star Scott Kazmir, Sabermetric hero Brandon McCarthy and World Series icon Charlie Culberson -- all to bring Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles, there was a bit of an uproar. Panic, even.

"Relax," the Los Angeles Times advised. "The Dodgers probably won't even keep Kemp."

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Dodgers announced they traded four players to the Braves -- and not just any four players, but five-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, three-time All-Star Scott Kazmir, Sabermetric hero Brandon McCarthy and World Series icon Charlie Culberson -- all to bring Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles, there was a bit of an uproar. Panic, even.

"Relax," the Los Angeles Times advised. "The Dodgers probably won't even keep Kemp."

This was how far Kemp had fallen in the eyes of many; they were worried the Dodgers would keep him.

But look how quickly things change. The Dodgers will tell you they made the trade entirely for financial reasons. The club wanted to get under the luxury-tax threshold so it will have more money to spend next year when a glorious class of potential free agents -- including its own Clayton Kershaw -- can hit the market.

Kemp was merely a piece of the financial puzzle. Everyone -- really, everyone -- said and wrote that Los Angeles would release Kemp or dump him in another trade; he was really just an asset to be moved from one row of columns to another. Yet here we are, less than a month from Opening Day, and not only have the Dodgers not released Kemp, they have penciled him in, at least for the moment, as their starting left fielder. And you can sense that they are legitimately excited about him.

Kemp goes deep in first game back with LA

"He's moving around really well," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi says. "I mean, look, he's continued to hit. That bat has been there pretty consistently; everyone is confident that he's going to hit. With him, it's really about his health and his defense, and you know, I mean, if he's in good shape and he's healthy, we think he can play a solid outfield. We're going to let it play out …

"... but," Zaidi says again, "he's in really good shape."

Baseball is a strange game. It wasn't that long ago -- let's say, 2012 -- that Kemp was the face of Dodgers baseball and one of the great young stars in the game. A quick story: The All-Star Game was in Kansas City that year, and Tony Gwynn was having a question and answer session at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I was fortunate enough to be the one asking Gwynn questions, and while we were talking, the Hall of Fame outfielder looked into the crowd. There was Kemp, the only player in attendance. He was paying homage to his hero.

"You asked me if anyone today can hit .400," Gwynn said. "Well, there's one guy right there who could do it -- Matt Kemp."

Video: ARI@LAD: Kemp crushes a two-run shot to left-center

Kemp was coming off an extraordinary season. In 2011, he hit .324/.399/.586. He led the league in home runs, RBIs and runs scored, and on top of that, stole 40 bases. The only other player in baseball history to lead the league in home runs, RBIs and runs scored while stealing 40 bases was … well, nobody. Only Kemp has done that. He somehow lost out on the National League Most Valuable Player Award to Ryan Braun; it's not entirely clear how that happened other than the fact that the Brewers made the playoffs and the Dodgers did not.

Point is, Kemp was one of those rare players who could absolutely do everything. He even won an NL Gold Glove Award that year. Then came the injuries. Kemp, up to that point, had been a remarkably durable player -- his 399 consecutive games played streak was the longest in the Majors -- until he pulled his right hamstring. Then he pulled it once more; he hurt his right knee; he tweaked his left shoulder; he sprained his left ankle; the right hamstring flared up again.

One of the sad stories of baseball is how injuries can not only keep a player out, but can also change their whole story. Kemp had been a dynamic and forceful player. The injuries reduced him in the public's mind to a brittle and temperamental one. "I'm not made of glass," Kemp grumbled to the media. He had signed an eight-year, $160 million deal at his peak, and this only added to the tension.

When Andrew Friedman came in to take over as the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, one of his first moves was to trade away Kemp. He hit well in 2013 -- he racked up 38 doubles, 25 homers and slugged .506 -- but Los Angeles saw his defense as a problem and his contract as a burden. The club moved him to the Padres for some younger players, including catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Kemp has shown some power the past three years -- he hit 35 home runs two years ago as he split time between the Padres and Braves -- but he was beat up, and he couldn't move (he hit into the most double plays in the league even though he only appeared in 115 games). When the Dodgers made the trade to reunite with Kemp, it was noted that they're so loaded in the outfield they can't even find a spot for Joc Pederson, who probably would have won the World Series MVP Award last year if L.A. had won.

Yes, the Dodgers were sure to release Kemp.

Only they didn't.

"After we made the deal for financial reasons," Zaidi says, "we had the obligation to evaluate this from a baseball standpoint, you know? And from a baseball standpoint, he's a guy who has a history in this organization. He's a guy who speaks his mind in the clubhouse in a way that I think is really helpful to younger players.

"And I think some of what he's gone through the last three years has given him an even greater appreciation of what he had here. … We've been totally transparent with him. It's like, 'You're coming to camp and you're gonna be part of our left-field competition out there. We have a lot of guys we like and value out there; you're going to have to beat them out for playing time. It may happen. It may not.' He understands that. He's embracing it."

Video: CWS@LAD: Kemp hammers three-run homer to left field

Kemp is definitely embracing it on the field. He's batting .333 with three home runs already in Spring Training and is moving noticeably better in the outfield. Kemp was supposed to be elsewhere, scrapping for a job, but instead he seems to be forcing his way onto the deepest team in the NL, and he's having more fun playing baseball than he has in a long time.

"There's something around here that rubs off on you," Kemp says.

Warning: It's still early in camp. If there's one thing you come to learn being around baseball, it is that sometimes the wonderful and surprising stories of early March spoil as Opening Day approaches. But Kemp is determined to become a part of this Dodgers team.

"Matt understands that playing well in Spring Training is just unambiguously good for him," Zaidi says. "Whether it's about playing time or about other teams gaining interest him, the better he looks, the better it will be for him. And so far, I think we can say he looks really good."

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Matt Kemp