2011 just keeps on getting better for Matt Kemp.
After a disappointing 2010 campaign that saw the ultra-talented centerfielder take some flak for hitting just .249 with 170 strikeouts (a Dodger record) and leading the senior circuit in outs while also regressing on the basepaths (caught 15 times in 34 attempts, leading GM Ned Colletti to publicly criticize him) and in the field (-0.2 dWAR), Kemp quickly erased any sour aftertaste and rewarded fantasy owners everywhere (talk about a third round bargain!) with a season reminiscent of Vladimir Guerrero in his prime. He showed up to spring training committed to improving his baserunning, setting the bar at 40 thefts with a high percentage rate.
Mission accomplished, and then some.
He achieved this goal while making strides in almost every other area as well. His 10 bWAR and 126 RBI led the bigs, and his 115 runs, 39 dingers, 353 total bases, 171 OPS+ were all tops in the NL as he set career bests across the board. The first time All-Star made a legitimate run at the triple crown with his September surge but his .324 average ultimately fell short of league leader Jose Reyes (.337) and runner-up Ryan Braun (.332). He also narrowly missed joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano as the only members of baseball's exclusive 40/40 club, but can find consolation in his second Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. Despite playing for a mediocre Dodgers squad, Kemp carried their offense and deserves the NL MVP for this monster season. If Clayton Kershaw's Cy Young win is any indication, it's that the voters won't penalize him for an otherwise lost season in Hollywood.
But if he doesn't receive the extra piece of hardware, I have a feeling he won't be too disappointed. The man just inked an 8 year, $160 million deal that will keep him in LA for the remainder of the decade.
Wait a second...weren't the Dodgers supposed to be bankrupt?
Disregarding the franchise's financial situation, my mind immediately flashed to former teammate Manny Ramirez signing the same deal with Boston and Dan Duquette a decade ago, when he joined a team quite similar to Kemp's Dodgers. Manny signed on to an 85 win team that missed the playoffs with that year's Cy Young winner (Pedro Martinez) and a mostly mediocre offense besides Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Everett. Kemp returns to an 82 win team that missed the postseason with Kershaw filling in for Pedro and Andre Ethier playing the role of the rest of the lineup. In addition, many scouts have frequently referred to Kemp as "Manny Ramirez with speed," high praise for the budding superstar. Even his mental lapses on the field and off-field distractions (Rihanna) have merited comparisons with Mannywood.
There are obvious differences, of course. Ramirez was a much more established player when he inked his deal; he had already played eight seasons for the Cleveland Indians, teaming up with Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and others to lead the offensive powerhouse to five consecutive playoff appearances from 1995 to 1999 including a pair of Fall Classics in '95 and '97. The 1994 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up had made four All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers and finished in the top six of AL MVP voting three years running. Kemp's trophy case is much less crowded and he's never made it to the game's biggest stage. More specifically, he's never made it past Game Five of the NLCS.
Manny was also a much better hitter to that point in his career, arguably the best righthanded hitter in the game at the time (only Belle and Nomar really deserved to be in the conversation). He owned a .313/.407/.592 triple slash line, had a great batting eye and ranked among the game's best run producers after plating 165 runners in 1999, when he set his career high with 8 bWAR. Kemp, on the other hand, boasts a good but not great .294/.350/.496 line somewhat inflated by his huge season, before which no one labeled him as one of the game's premier hitters. He still strikes out too much (159 times in 2011), doesn't walk enough (only 50 unintentional free passes) and simply isn't as polished as peers like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
But while we're examining the Manny parallel, it's important to note that Duquette's investment paid off quite nicely. Despite the bitter, messy ending to the mercurial slugger's hot and cold relationship with the team in the summer of 2008 that ended with his getting shipped to the Dodgers at the July 31st deadline, the megadeal worked out pretty well for Boston. In his seven and a half seasons in Beantown Ramirez replicated his Cleveland figures by triple slashing .312/.411/.588. An All-Star every year, the 2004 World Series MVP joined forces with David Ortiz to form a lethal 3-4 heart of the order threat that helped lead the new look Red Sox to four postseason appearances and a pair of championships. Steroids or not, he goes down as the best righthanded hitter in the team's storied history along with Jim Rice and Jimmie Foxx.
And while Kemp isn't on Ramirez's level as a hitter, he still has three key advantages. The first is age: he just turned 27 whereas Ramirez was almost 29 when he signed the deal. The second is durability; he's averaged 159 games played the past four years while Ramirez never appeared in more than 154 and never hesitated to ask out of the lineup when he didn't feel like playing. The third and most important is that he's a much more well-rounded ballplayer. Although he rates below average by most advanced fielding metrics, he has much more range (and the aforementioned pair of Gold Gloves, or two more than Ramirez ever won) and is nowhere near the defensive liability ManRam was. He's also a threat on the basepaths, as he's already enjoyed three seasons of at least 34 stolen bags. Ramirez swiped 38...in his entire 19 year career. Kemp is widely regarded as a five tool stud in the same mold as Ken Griffey Jr., whereas Ramirez was elite in two areas (hitting, power) and deficient in the other three (running, throwing, catching). Therefore, when Kemp is at his best he is significantly more valuable, as reflected in their bWAR scores (Manny was typically good for around four or five a season, but Kemp should be able to produce a few more).
Los Angeles shouldn't expect eight more 2011's from Matt Kemp, but he won't be a bust either. If he can more or less split the difference between his disastrous 2010 and superlative 2011 he'll be a consistent 30/30 threat with the potential to score and drive in 100 runs with a batting average in the .290 range.
That's not Manny Ramirez production, but in this brave new world dominated by pitching it's plenty good enough.