The Cost of Moving Matt Kemp

Not too long ago, Dave ran through his annual trade value series. Predictably, he ranked the most valuable player in baseball as being Mike Trout. Less predictably, but still predictably, he ranked the most anti-valuable player in baseball as being Albert Pujols. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols are teammates! A fun question, then, that showed up in a chat: does Pujols cancel Trout out? In other words, would it make sense for the Angels to package Trout and Pujols together for nothing? It’s totally hypothetical and unrealistic, but it’s an awesome thought experiment, and when Dave ran the numbers, he determined that, no, the package still has value because Trout is that amazing.

So, we’ll never see a trade involving Albert Pujols to offset Mike Trout. But perhaps we could see a deal with a similar design. Playing the part of Pujols: Matt Kemp. Playing the part of Trout: not a guy like Trout at all, but an interesting and talented young prospect. See, it would appear the Dodgers are motivated to move Kemp to another team, and given his salary commitment, there are a few ways the Dodgers could make Kemp more appealing.

The reason Kemp is interesting at all is because in 2011 he might’ve been the best player in baseball. That wasn’t that long ago, and Kemp to this day is an above-average hitter, who’s almost 30 but who isn’t there yet. On the other hand, in 2011 Jacoby Ellsbury hit 32 home runs. In 2011 Roy Halladay was baseball’s best pitcher, and Tim Lincecum’s ERA beat his peripherals, and the Phillies won 102 games. Things have changed, is the point, and Kemp represents a hell of a risk. The talent is obvious, but over the past two calendar years, he’s been worth 0.3 WAR in 226 games. We find Adam Dunn at 0.2 WAR, and Mike Aviles at 0.5 WAR. Domonic Brown is at 0.0 WAR. Dealing for Kemp is dealing for upside, upside of an unknown magnitude.

We know that injuries and surgeries can explain some of Kemp’s decline. Yet, the best indicator of future injury trouble is past injury trouble, and there’s no telling how well Kemp’s power will return as he puts more distance between himself and his shoulder operations. Between 2009 – 2012, Kemp slugged .514. This year’s .432 is up from last year’s .395. We can also play with some arbitrary ESPN Home Run Tracker information; here are Kemp’s homers hit at least 105 miles per hour:

  • 2006: 4
  • 2007: 4
  • 2008: 6
  • 2009: 8
  • 2010: 7
  • 2011: 14
  • 2012: 3
  • 2013: 2
  • 2014: 1

It’s obvious that Kemp’s power isn’t what it was. It’s reasonable to expect some improvement, but maybe not actually that much. Between 2015 – 2019, Kemp is guaranteed $107 million.

So, let’s talk about his value, relative to his salary. There’ve been a couple interesting Tweets on the subject. One of them:

The other:

I think it’s safe to say that, if Kemp were a free agent, he’d get more than two years and $15 million – $16 million. He just wouldn’t get it from either of those anonymous executives. Rosenthal’s tweet is more in line with what Kemp might be able to expect. Granted, hypothetical free-agent Kemp probably wouldn’t be signed through 2019, but anyway, we can run through some math. And we’ll begin with this: blended ZiPS and Steamer project Kemp, right now, for about 2.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances.

So let’s plug that in as his 2015 projection. He’ll be entering his 30s, so he could reasonably be expected to decline over the next half-decade. We’ll start with a 2015 win valuation of $6.5 million per WAR, and we’ll bump that up each year to reflect market inflation. Everything here is an estimate, but we’re just looking to find an estimate, so that’s okay. Based on my own little calculator, between 2015 – 2019, Kemp might be projected for a little over 8 WAR. He’d therefore be worth about $60 million, giving him a negative value of about $47 million. The easiest way to understand that: based on these numbers, it would make sense for the Dodgers to trade Matt Kemp for nothing, while eating $47 million. That’s pretty similar to Rosenthal’s tweet.

Of course, you can move the numbers around. If you project Kemp for 3 WAR, then his negative value is about $25 million. Project him for 2.5 WAR and it’s about $40 million. Project him for 2 WAR and it’s about $52 million, and so on. What we can say is that Matt Kemp’s negative value is some tens of millions of dollars. That’s why nobody is willing to trade for him and his contract — he just isn’t worth his contract, by any analysis. Keep in mind that he’s been worse than a replacement-level player since the start of last season.

But he can hit. He’s hit a lot before. He could be badly in need of a change of scenery. Obviously, no one thinks Kemp is a disaster. So we come to another tweet from Monday morning:

One solution for the Dodgers: eat a lot of money. Do that, and Kemp can go away.

The other, more intriguing solution: tie Kemp to something with surplus value. Something with a lot of surplus value. The idea conveyed to Olney is tying Kemp to one of the Dodgers’ top prospects. In their midseason top 50, Baseball America ranked Julio Urias No. 13, Corey Seager No. 16, and Joc Pederson No. 18.

Now, one of the ideas behind moving Kemp is to make space for Pederson, so it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense for the Dodgers to lose both of them at once. But let’s keep things simple for now. Obviously, all these top prospects have a lot of surplus value, which is why prospects are hoarded. The only thing more valuable than a talented young player is a talented young player who’s major-league proven. But just what might these guys be worth?

We’ll continue with the estimates. There’s no way around this — we’re basically just employing educated guesswork. Urias is a young top pitching prospect. Seager and Pederson are young top position-player prospects. The ceilings are obvious. The risks: Urias is 17 and a pitcher. Seager’s played just six games above Single-A. Pederson’s struck out a lot in Albuquerque. It wouldn’t be a surprise for any of them to succeed; it wouldn’t be a surprise for any of them to fail. Prospects, you know?

So let’s look at some somewhat recent research. Here’s Kevin Creagh. Here’s Michael Valancius. I’ll save you some time. The former would give Urias a surplus value around $20 million, and Seager and Pederson surplus values around $35 million. The latter would give Urias a surplus value around $40 million, and Seager and Pederson surplus values around $35 million. There’s agreement with the position players. Maybe, with Urias, you split the middle. Then they’re all in the same range — somewhere between $30 million – $40 million each.

Which is a pretty damn close match for Matt Kemp’s calculated negative value over the life of his contract. Which leads us to a hell of a conclusion: based on these numbers, there’s an argument to be made that it would make sense for the Dodgers to trade Kemp and one of their top prospects for nothing. Kemp’s value is so low, in other words, and prospects are sufficiently risky, that Kemp and a top prospect basically cancel each other out.

A trade, presumably, wouldn’t actually work quite like that. A team that trades for Kemp probably likes Kemp quite a bit, so that team would project him higher. An AL team could move him to DH down the road, if he’s willing to do that. Also, teams would rather have prospects than money, in most cases, so you could foresee some overpaying for the surplus value of a Urias, Seager, or Pederson. The Dodgers, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to trade Kemp and a top prospect for nothing, and they could probably expect to get a little help back. Maybe that would be in the form of a prospect. Maybe that would be in the form of instant help. Maybe Kemp and a top prospect could make up the bulk of a package for a few months of Jon Lester. The Dodgers could always offer to eat a little more money, to make sure they were getting more than just future salary relief.

But this is the status of things. Kemp is somewhat unhappy in Los Angeles, and he seems to be clashing with the field staff. The Dodgers need to make room for one of the better outfield prospects in baseball, and Kemp is owed a lot of money through the next half-decade. He can still hit, but he hasn’t hit like he used to, and he can’t move around like he used to, and he’ll never again be the age that he used to be. Kemp’s market value isn’t close to matching his contract terms, which means if the Dodgers want to deal Kemp away, they have a choice to make. Neither option would be easy to swallow, but there’s no easy way out from a long-term contract albatross. Unless another front office grows incredibly desperate, the Dodgers are going to have to either sacrifice a lot of money, or sacrifice the prospect equivalent.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Just discovered that Kemp does NOT have a no-trade clause.

Which means the Dodgers have about a 1 1/2 year window before he becomes a 10/5 player and can veto any trade. They have all the incentive in the world to move him, even if they get squat in return.