A Minor Matt Kemp Move Illuminates Major Obstacles to a 2020 Season

It was a mundane transaction, one that ordinarily wouldn’t have required 500 words to explain to a baseball-starved readership, let alone 1,800. Matt Kemp, a 35-year-old former All-Star who played just 20 major league games last year, signed a minor-league deal with the Rockies. Given the move’s timing and the circumstances that surround it, however, Kemp-to-Colorado leaves a whole lot to unpack, and so here we are.

Kemp is on a minor-league deal, but he won’t play in the minors this year because there won’t be any minor league season, news of which was officially announced on Tuesday, though the outcome had long been apparent. Kemp may not play in the majors, either, not only because it’s unclear whether he’s good enough to do so anymore, but because the coronavirus pandemic that delayed Opening Day by nearly four months is still running rampant, and because the precautions designed to keep players and associated staff healthy may not be enough.

Even before the official green-lighting of the season, the Rockies were among the first teams to feel the impact of the coronavirus. Last Tuesday, the Denver Post’s Kyle Newman reported that four-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon was among three Rockies who had tested positive for COVID-19, along with pitchers Ryan Castellani and Phillip Diehl, all of whom had been informally working out at Coors Field in recent weeks. News of their illness followed reports of at least half a dozen teams being hit by the virus, though the players and staffers who tested positive on those teams weren’t identified. Blackmon and company were, but that’s not supposed to happen. While MLB has created a COVID-19-related injured list among its many new roster rules, on Tuesday ESPN’s Marly Rivera reported that both Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said that teams are not allowed to divulge the names of players who tests positive, in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“The information I’ve been given is [the media] will be left to try to figure that out,” Cashman said during a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “Somebody might be down and out, but we might not be able to speak to why, and it would be a speculating circumstance [where] you would have to use your journalistic superpowers to determine if there’s anything there or not, what the circumstance might be.”

The federal law restricting release of medical information without a patient’s consent or knowledge means that only players can reveal their positive test status.

“We’re allowed to talk about numbers, but we’re not allowed to give individual names,” Hoyer told ESPN. “It’s up to those individuals to decide if they want to announce it. As a group, with the media, we’re going to have some conversations about what we can talk about and what we can’t talk about. We’re not at liberty to say which injured list a player is placed on.”

In the cases of Blackmon, Castellani, and Diehl, that genie can’t be put back into the bottle, but the issue is a larger one that will be faced time and again this season. Given the likelihood of players testing positive once the season begins, the unexplained absence of a prominent one for even a day or two will set off widespread speculation, rumors that spread more rapidly than the virus itself. Particularly if it’s a star like Blackmon or somebody even more prominent, that’s going to put his teammates, manager, and front office in an awkward position, and likewise for the media covering the team — to say nothing of the fact that while this delicate dance is going on, the player in question will be dealing with an illness that has already killed more than 129,000 people in the U.S. Yes, he may be asymptomatic, as two of the aforementioned three Rockies reportedly are, but he may in fact be fighting for his life. For as much as we want MLB to return, situations like this force us to confront the wisdom — or lack of same — of even attempting to launch this season.

Right now, the plan is to play, and we can only hope that Blackmon and his teammates recover and are healthy enough to do so in short order. In the meantime, the reality is that his absence leaves a sizable hole in the Rockies’ lineup. The just-turned-34-year-old has declined somewhat from his robust production of 2016-17, when he hit for a 137 wRC+ and produced 11.3 WAR; last year, he hit .314/.364/.576 with 32 homers, a 125 wRC+, and 2.0 WAR. His offensive value was so undercut by his defense in right field (-10.6 UZR, -9 DRS) that he was atop the list of NL players whom I suggested might be more suited to serving as a designated hitter.

While we await Blackmon’s return, we know that Ian Desmond won’t be doing so in 2020. In a lengthy, wide-ranging, and heartfelt message published on Instagram on Monday, the 34-year-old outfielder shared his thoughts on the murder of George Floyd at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin; the heartbreak and fulfillment he experienced while playing Little League as a biracial child; his confrontations with racism as he continued to play (including a harrowing memory of teammates chanting “White Power” as a pregame rallying cry); the obstacles of participation and the dearth of Black people and other minorities within baseball “from the top down”; and finally his own decision to sit out this season to be with his pregnant wife and four young children “who have a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world” rather than risk his health. Instead he will focus not only on his family (answering “my older three boys’ questions about Coronavirus and Civil Rights and life”) but also on helping to “get Sarasota Youth Baseball back on track.” It’s an essay worthy of The Players Tribune, and it should be required reading for anybody trying to understand this particularly sensitive moment, where professional sports are trying to proceed while confronting both the realities of the pandemic and the deeply rooted systemic racism within our society.

Along with the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross and the Diamondbacks’ Mike Leake, Desmond is among the first wave of players to opt out of the 2020 season. Unless there’s a previously undisclosed condition that places him in a high-risk group, he will be forfeiting both the prorated portion of his $15 million salary as well as his service time. It’s fair to say that the first three years of his five-year, $70 million contract with the Rockies have not worked out to anyone’s liking; he’s hit for an 80 wRC+ and been below replacement level in all three seasons, which makes him a struggling player but no less of a person. Right now, his family and baseball — at any level of the sport, from the offices of the commissioner and the players’ union to the neighborhoods of his town — need Ian Desmond more than the Rockies do.

Given that Desmond amassed 482 PA with Colorado last year, that’s more playing time that needs filling, and by the looks of their depth chart — where Sam Hilliard and Raimel Tapia are slated to join David Dahl in the outfield, at least until Blackmon returns — the Rockies look rather threadbare, which is where Kemp comes in. A three-time All-Star, the now-35-year-old slugger played only briefly last year after being sent from the Dodgers to the Reds in a seven-player December 2018 blockbuster headlined by Yasiel Puig. While he started 15 of the Reds’ first 21 games in left field, he hit just .200/.210/.283 with a 19-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 plate appearances before fracturing a rib while running into an outfield wall, an injury that wrecked his season.

“I fought the wall and the wall won,” Kemp told an Associated Press reporter in the spring. After serving a stint on the 10-day injured list, he was released by the Reds on May 4. Nearly three weeks later, he signed with the Mets, but played just eight games for Triple-A Syracuse before returning to the injured list with “lingering effects” from his rib injury; released again on July 12, he didn’t make another appearance in uniform during the season. That looked as though it might bring down the curtain on Kemp’s 14-year major league career, but he signed a minor-league deal with the Marlins in December, and played regularly in spring training, though his Grapefruit League numbers (4-for-28 with 11 strikeouts and no extra-base hits) didn’t offer much hope.

Still, Kemp is just two years removed from the last of his All-Star appearances, which came during a return to the Dodgers, who drafted him out of an Oklahoma high school in 2003 and featured him as their center fielder for most of the 2006-14 span, sometimes with dazzling results that made him the toast of Tinseltown. The eight-year, $160 million contract he signed in late 2011 fueled his subsequent odyssey, as the Dodgers, Padres, Braves, and again the Dodgers absorbed $54 million of his salary (per Cots Contracts) while sending him onto his next destination. During his return to Dodger blue in 2018, he hit a surprising .290/.338/.481 with 21 home runs in 506 PA, making his first All-Star team in six years on the strength of a stellar first half (.310/.352/.522) before plummeting in the second half (.255/.313/.406). Even with that dip in his stats, his 122 wRC+, 7.1% walk rate, and 1.6 WAR were his best marks since his last pre-trade season in 2014. His Statcast numbers were his best of that stretch as well:

Matt Kemp via Statcast, 2015-19
Year Batted Balls EV LA wOBA xwOBA xwOBAcon
2015 457 89.5 11.8 .325 .340 .415
2016 479 88.2 14.4 .333 .347 .437
2017 340 88.4 8.2 .328 .357 .440
2018 354 89.6 15.8 .348 .362 .448
2019 42 87.5 13.8 .208 .197 .275
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Those 2018 numbers put Kemp in the 69th percentile for exit velocity, and 86th percentile for xwOBA; his 11.3% barrel rate was similarly in the 85th percentile, his .528 xSlG in the 94th. In other words, if healthy, his bat may still pack a considerable punch — provided he can make consistent contact, which he didn’t last year.

Kemp’s speed- and defense-related Statcast numbers join the chorus in testifying to his DH-worthiness. He was in the 36th percentile for Sprint Speed in 2018, as well as the seventh percentile for Outs Above Average, and the fifth percentile for Outfielder Jump; meanwhile, his -4.6 UZR and -8 DRS were actually his best in those categories since 2013, down from four years of double-digit averages in each.

Kemp will join the Rockies’ 60-man pool and compete for a chance to prop up an offense that ranked 26th in the majors in wRC+ last year (86). It’s entirely possible that he won’t be up to the task, if those small-sample 2019 and spring 2020 numbers carry any hint of the truth. Still, the man owns a career line of .327/.389/.616 (166 wRC+) with 21 homers in 375 PA at Coors Field over the course of his career, and he’s stunned us before with his resilience. Particularly amid our current surroundings, watching him bashing balls off and over the fences in Denver would be a welcome sight.

We hoped you liked reading A Minor Matt Kemp Move Illuminates Major Obstacles to a 2020 Season by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
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Member
sadtrombone

If this were one of about 20 teams, I think you could say “they just need some depth if Dahl, Tapia, Hilliard, or Daza get hurt or sick and Blackmon isn’t back soon.” With this team, you worry they’ll actually play him.

Chad
Member
Chad

In centerfield.

dukewinslow
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Member
dukewinslow

they’ve interpolated that he provides the leadership they need to start every day at shortstop