For a player with a contract many consider untradeable, Matt Kemp sure has been traded a lot. Since signing a eight-year, $160 million contract extension with the Dodgers in November 2011, he has been dealt four times. In 2014, Los Angeles sent him to the Padres, who shipped him to Braves, who returned him back to the Dodgers, who traded him to the Reds this offseason.
Could Dick Williams and Nick Krall deal Kemp a fifth time before his contract expires at the end of 2019? Absent an obvious fit for Kemp on the current team, it’s a question many have asked since the eight-player trade was finalized in December.
Why a Matt Kemp Trade Makes Sense
There’s no clear path to playing time for Kemp. That was the case before Nick Senzel was named a candidate for the everyday center field job. Kemp is strictly a corner outfielder, where the Reds already have a surplus. Yasiel Puig will get the lion’s share of time in right field. Manager David Bell said he wants to get Jesse Winker regular playing time in left field. If Senzel wins the starting job in center (or takes the job after the Reds play the service time game), that puts Scott Schebler — a capable big-league hitter in his own right — on the bench as the backup at all three outfield spots. Derek Dietrich is also likely to make the Reds out of spring training and has experience in left and right field. Michael Lorenzen is even getting reps in the outfield this spring.
Kemp would presumably fit into the equation as a solid pinch-hitting option and a periodic starter against left-handed pitchers. His defense is a clear step down from every other outfield option aside from maybe Winker. It will be tough for him to get regular at-bats assuming Winker plays almost every day. Kemp is also far from a guarantee to repeat his 2018 performance. Only two years ago, he was below replacement level with the Braves (-0.7 fWAR, -1.3 bWAR). Last season showed he can still hit, but regression could also come his way, especially at age 34.
The presence of Phillip Ervin, who doesn’t have much left to prove at Triple-A, further makes Kemp expendable. He saw 247 plate appearances with the Reds in 2018 and hit .252/.324/.404 with seven home runs in a backup role. The former first-round pick is still just 26 years old and still has room to grow into a solid contributor off the bench. He could fill that final bench role and at a much lower cost than Kemp. A trade would free up a spot for Ervin, who looks destined to return to Louisville as of now.
Despite his age and contract, Kemp still has trade value as well. The Reds likely wouldn’t have to release him to get him off the roster. Although Cincinnati wouldn’t get a huge haul, he’s coming off his best offensive season since 2014 (.290/.338/.481, 122 wRC+) and could be attractive as a designated hitter for an American League team. While he’s owed $21 million this season, the Dodgers and Padres are both paying a portion of that money. Whatever team deals for him wouldn’t have to make a long-term commitment or allocate an absurd portion of 2018 payroll to afford him.
Why the Reds Could Keep Matt Kemp
Depth isn’t a bad thing, and Kemp would provide value as a bench player. Let’s say he hits at a league-average level (100 wRC+) in 300 plate appearances. The last Reds player to do that while primarily coming off the bench was Chris Heisey in 2011. Anyone would take that kind of production compared to what the team received from the Jack Hannahans and Skip Schumakers of the world for the better part of the last six seasons.
At this point in Kemp’s career, the only better role than coming off the bench is as a DH. It would allow the Reds to largely hide his atrocious defense while still getting offensive production. Even in his worst season, Kemp never hit fewer than 19 home runs when getting at least 400 plate appearances. He has more than 20 home runs in all but one year in which he had at least 500 trips to the plate.
Kemp provides the most value against left-handers, with a 143 career wRC+ against them. He could make some starts here and there against southpaws, especially if Winker has a hard time handling them, and provide more value with the bat than he takes away with his defense and baserunning.
The contract is the No. 1 reason he’s been traded so many times. However, he has only one year remaining and is hardly weighing the Reds down financially in 2018. The Dodgers sent $7 million to the Reds in the December trade, and the Padres are also still paying Kemp. The money, ultimately, isn’t a huge deal, as the Reds’ current projected payroll — while higher than it’s ever been — is well below the league average at a projected $121 million.
Analyzing the Decision
Trading Kemp isn’t vital for the Reds. He’s a free agent after the season, so the team could simply enjoy his production off the bench in 2019 and part ways in November. But where is he going to get at-bats? The only player he could conceivably take time away from is Winker. And it seems unlikely that the Reds will sacrifice Winker’s development by putting him into a platoon situation with a player who’s only in Cincinnati for one year. There’s more future value in letting Winker continue to get more looks against left-handed pitching. Unless Winker turns into a pumpkin against southpaws, Kemp probably isn’t getting more than a start or two per week.
There’s a legitimate argument for keeping Kemp as a slugger off the bench. But could the Reds acquire a player who helps them more in the long-term by trading Kemp? It’s possible, especially if the Reds are willing to eat some of his contract in the deal. And if the Reds don’t trade Kemp, will he provide substantially more value as a fifth outfielder than Ervin? Unlikely.
Barring an injury, which is always a possibility, the choice to keep or trade Kemp may come down to Ervin and how the team views him moving forward. In a perfect world, the Reds would like to keep Ervin in the big leagues and let him continue to develop against major-league pitching. He turns 27 in July and could potentially contribute in a bench role for years to come. He’s a capable hitter at the plate, bringing decent pop and on-base skills that have played well off the bench so far in his 106 big-league games (95 wRC+). Kemp, however, is 34 and leaving after 2019. From that standpoint, keeping Ervin and jettisoning Kemp would seem like the obvious choice.
But the Reds’ front office has been vocal about wanting to start cracking open the window of contention in 2019. It’s why they traded for other players with one year left in Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, and Yasiel Puig. While they’re not going for broke, they’re certainly not a lock for last in the NL Central again. If the team wants to maximize its win total this year, it may keep Kemp and option Ervin to the minor leagues. Right now, Kemp likely provides more overall value, even if it won’t be by a huge margin in a part-time role.
Kemp isn’t as adept at drawing a walk as Ervin, but he brings significantly more power to the table. Even in his worst offensive years, Kemp has never posted less than a 98 wRC+. Ervin has a career 95 wRC+. That’s not an entirely fair comparison since Ervin has just over 300 plate appearances under his belt. However, there’s little disputing that Kemp has the better bat even at 34 years old.
The Reds can’t completely ignore Kemp’s age and decline in performance prior to 2018. Kemp could certainly regress at least somewhat, in 2019. That process started in the second half of last year. He hit out of his mind to begin the season (137 wRC+, .369 wOBA in the first half) and earned an All-Star nod because of it. After the break, he slowed down significantly (97 wRC+, .310 wOBA) as his batted-ball luck evened out. As Kemp’s second half showed, he’s probably not going to maintain a .339 batting average on balls in play again in 2019. His career mark is above average at .338, but he hadn’t posted a mark better than .318 since 2014. If he maintains a 43.5% hard-contact rate (23rd among qualified hitters last year), however, the drop-off may not be significant.
Defensively, Ervin is undoubtedly better. The metrics aren’t particularly high on him (-7 DRS, -11.5 UZR/150), but he has only 617 innings of experience and hasn’t played one position consistently. Those metrics have flaws to begin with, and the sample size isn’t large enough to judge Ervin’s abilities. Most scouts and prospect experts, including Doug Gray, felt his defense was above average at every position except center field coming through the minor leagues.
But even if he’s only an average defender moving forward, that’s far better than Kemp. Although he was a decent defender at one time, Kemp is currently one of the worst outfielders in the game. Since 2014, only Jay Bruce and Khris Davis have a worse FanGraphs Defensive rating among outfielders with 2,000 innings played. Kemp has the lowest UZR/150 (-12.7) and fewest DRS (-81) in that span. Relatively speaking, Statcast was kinder to Kemp last year in Outs Above Average (-6); he was tied for 69th out of 87 qualified outfielders.
In short, Ervin’s defense probably doesn’t put him far enough ahead of Kemp to warrant a roster spot if no trade occurs. But Kemp is more or less a superfluous player for the Reds in 2019. It won’t hurt the Reds tremendously to trade him if an AL team wants to upgrade at DH and will send any player of value in return. If Ervin plays average defense and hits for a bit more power to go with his solid eye at the plate, it’s not far-fetched to think he could prove more valuable than Kemp if the latter regresses. Even if that doesn’t happen, the drop-off from Kemp to Ervin isn’t that notable when talking about a fifth outfielder.