Rejuvenated Kemp leads LA in Showcase game

June 21st, 2018

NEW YORK -- Matt Kemp got hurt last year, then he got heavy, then he got the heave-ho to a team that didn't want him.

This is not the normal path to an All-Star berth and Comeback Player of the Year Award, but that's where Kemp is headed with the Dodgers, who face the Mets on Friday night in the MLB Network Showcase game.

Kemp was a Dodgers superstar, a two-time All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, signed to a $160 million contract. As a rookie, his manager compared him to Chipper Jones for raw talent. In 2011, he nearly went 40/40 and finished second in MVP voting to .

Then came the swoon, a career knocked off its axis by two plays. He ran too hard into the wall at Coors Field and damaged a shoulder, then he didn't run hard enough from third base to home and made an awkward slide that broke his ankle.

Add in arthritic hips and recurring hamstring issues and Kemp had a body no longer conducive to Gold Glove outfield play.

But things happen. And the ultimate irony is that this unwanted player is back with his original club and looking a lot like that MVP talent again, leading the club in average (.322), RBIs (43) and doubles (16, tied) while ranking second home runs (12, tied) and third in OPS (.908).

"He's doing everything he can to help us win games," said manager Dave Roberts. "Without him and his production the first couple of months, I don't know where we'd be. To say he'd be leading the league in hitting, I wouldn't expect that. But the big hits, driving in runs -- I'm not surprised at all."

That would put Roberts among the few true believers, because Kemp doubters were everywhere when the head-scratching headline crossed that the Dodgers had reacquired him in December. The Dodgers made no secret that this was an equal salary swap -- financial engineering, MLB style.

They sent roughly $45 million in 2018 salaries (belonging to , , and Charlie Culberson) to Atlanta and took back the roughly $45 million owed to Kemp over the next two years. Pushing salary from one year to the next dropped the Dodgers under the competitive balance tax for 2018, resetting penalties.

The Dodgers' plan was to flip Kemp at the first opportunity, but nobody else wanted him, either, so the Dodgers brought him to camp. The player that showed up, however, wasn't the one Atlanta traded.

During the winter, Kemp bought a house in Texas, huddled up with former Major Leaguers Torii Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins, and rededicated himself to being great. He changed his diet and got a personal chef, hired a personal trainer to put his body back together and changed his mindset. He lost 40 pounds and gained back some of those lost defensive skills.

"It's certainly not something we expected," general manager Farhan Zaidi told David Vassegh on AM 570 DodgerTalk. "The credit all goes to Matt for sticking with it, even when there wasn't an obvious path to playing time. His teammates love him, and maybe under the radar he's played amazing defense. That became a liability the last couple years, but with his conditioning during the offseason, he's made a lot of plays for us defensively. He wants to get back to the time when he took a lot of pride in his defense. We've all been pleased with the attitude and performance. He's really done it all."