Kemp’s journey back to the top starts now

After another roller coaster football season, all of a sudden it’s that time of year again; MLB spring training.

As all 30 teams start gearing up for the season ahead much of the focus in Dodgertown is about Clayton Kershaw living up to his new record breaking $215m contract and if Yasiel Puig can build on his rookie success. But the bigger question mark lies in the outfield – where LA’s former poster child Matt Kemp has a lot of work to do.

“Matt Kemp’s a player that hits for average, hits for power, he’s driving in runs, stealing bases. The amount of things he can do, really just changes the game” said Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly.

But that narrative was two years ago. After a breakout 2011 season which left the MLB universe in awe: with 39 home runs, 40 steals and MVP runner-up to a self-proclaimed wrongdoer – Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. At the time it seemed Matt Kemp would continue to be unstoppable and live up to his 8 year $160m contract. Unfortunately for the 29 year old center-fielder, a lot has changed since that one glorious season in the limelight.

Problems started in the early stages of the 2012 season after another hot stretch, Kemp strained his hamstring mid-May and really hasn’t looked like the old Matt Kemp since. He finished 2012 having missed 56 games, still batting over .300 but with vastly declining stats across the board.

2013 didn’t fare much better either, in fact, it was far worse. Hamstring issues flared up in May once again, and upon returning from the DL mid season. Then a shoulder injury sustained crashing into an outfield wall and an ankle injury running for home plate late in the season meant Kemp’s role was reduced to cheerleader throughout October.

Sitting in the dugout sporting a team hoodie during the NLCS was a disappointing end to another disappointing season, in which he played only 73 games, and in the process opened the door to LA’s next young transcendent star, Cuban right-fielder Yasiel Puig. The outfield at Dodgers’ Stadium is now crowded, so it is vital that Kemp returns to form quickly if he wants to return to the starting lineup on a regular basis once again.

He has to be careful nonetheless, and he knows it. Coming back too early again is something #27 is going far and beyond to avoid. “I’m not going to come back until I am 110%,” said Kemp at the 2014 Annual Dodgers’ Stadium Fan Fest. “I want to play every game that I can. I don’t want to come back, get hurt, come back and get hurt again because that’s not going to do much for the team.

“When I do come back you are going to get me at 100%, you are going to get it all. I played almost 400 games in a row [from 2010 to 2012] . I’m not made of glass, I am a beast still. I can still hit, trust me, you are going to get it all.”

But the team’s medical staff insist he still has no timetable for a return. After multiple MRIs during the off-season, results are not showing enough progress to see him return to the field in time for the 2014 opener in Sydney Australia against Arizona on March 22nd.

Despite this Matt remains confident about his position within the team. “I’m not a fourth outfielder,” insists Kemp. “We can cut that off right there. I won’t accept that role. I’m here to help my team win and play every day. I can’t accept that role.” If he delivers, Carl Crawford, Andre Eithier or Yasiel Puig will either be pushed aside, put in a platooning position or find themselves on the trade block by mid-season. The Dodgers’ staff will have some tough decisions to make in what is being touted as a ‘World Series or bust’ season.

Matt Kemp openly admitted after Ryan Braun’s suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs, that his MVP should’ve been taken away. “I’m disappointed,” Kemp said. “I talked to Braun before any of this happened, we had conversations and I considered him a friend. I don’t think anybody likes to be lied to and I feel like a lot of people have felt betrayed. That’s not just me, that’s the whole Brewers organization, a lot of his teammates. I think a lot of people feel that way.”

If Matt can demonstrate to himself that he can return to the form which almost won him an MVP award and the NL triple crown, it would mean more to him than to be rewarded for the past.

Both Kemp and Braun are set to make their full return to baseball this season, with a clean slate. The last time they both played a full schedule without health or suspension issues, they were locked in a race for the honour of being considered the best in the major leagues. They equally have a lot to prove and live up to, much like they did when they were younger. It feels like a big year for both players as they get back on track to rekindle their recent all-star status, it should be mighty fun to watch whichever camp you find yourself in.

Yet there are a lot of questions still yet to be answered before Kemp in particular has any sort of shot at a prestigious honour: Can he still hit for power? Does he have the speed to continue stealing bases? And will his out-fielding ability still be in the upper echelon of the league? It keeps him as driven as he always has been. Kemp’s just trying to continue doing what’s best for the organisation and recognizes that the focus is the only change.

With a Hollywood smile on his face, and a mic in his left hand he unashamedly admits, “This year I’m just trying to be out there playing with my team.”

Photo credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images.


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