The Matt Kemp Trade Feels Like the Vernon Wells Trade

This isn’t one of those deals that came out of nowhere. The Padres have been rumored to be the most aggressive Matt Kemp suitor for a couple of weeks now, and all other interested parties seemingly dropped out as the asking price kept getting higher and higher. Over the last few days, this deal felt somewhat inevitable, so we’ve had plenty of time to process the trade and figure out what to say about it. And yet, I’m still kind of stumped.

The 2015 Padres are going to be bad. We currently project them at around a 75 win level, putting them in the same group as the Astros, Twins, Diamondbacks, and Braves. The only team demonstrably worse is the Phillies; you could reasonably argue that the Padres are something like the second worst team in baseball. And they could very well make themselves worse on purpose before the offseason ends, as they’ve reportedly been shopping their veteran starting pitchers, including walk-year guy Ian Kennedy.

It makes plenty of sense for the Padres to trade Kennedy, and if they’re worried that Tyson Ross‘ elbow will blow up from all the sliders he throws, there’s a good case to be made for trading him too. Non-contenders should generally be incentivized to move their short-term assets, especially ones with a significant chance of losing value, in exchange for players who will stick around longer and might increase in value in the future. Given the state of the Padres talent base, they should probably be focusing more on the future than the present.

Which is why I have a hard time understanding why they prioritized adding Matt Kemp. Yes, it’s clear that the team wanted to add a “big bat” to their line-up this winter, and Kemp is legitimately one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball. He gives them something they didn’t have before. I just don’t see how adding Kemp makes them a significantly better baseball team.

Even if you take the most optimistic view of Kemp’s defense, which makes him roughly an average right fielder, then Kemp’s overall production makes him about as valuable as Seth Smith was to the Padres last year. For all this talk about Kemp giving credibility to the Padres, or that his level of offense will do something for other San Diego players, the 2014 Padres had an average defensive corner outfielder who put up a 133 wRC+, and everyone else on their team was still awful.

To believe that Matt Kemp has some mystical ability to make everyone around him better, you have to believe not in the value of his performance helping his teammates, but in the value of his presence. And so now instead of arguing for a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats scenario — which there is some evidence for, as offensive production isn’t entirely linear — you’re arguing that Kemp’s persona or intimidation factor has some kind of magical aura above and beyond what he’s actually going to do at the plate. But there’s just no real evidence that this is the case.

Matt Kemp will make the Padres offense a bit better when he’s in the line-up because Matt Kemp can really hit. But he’s going to make the Padres defense a bit worse when he’s in the field, because he’s a pretty crap defender who is only getting older. All told, Kemp is worth maybe three wins more than a replacement level outfielder, a little less if his defense is as bad as the metrics suggest.

But to get those three wins, the Padres have to displace a not-replacement-level outfielder. Smith is obviously safe, so the odd man out is probably Carlos Quentin. Quentin, like Kemp, is a right-handed slugger with defensive problems, but he’s worse at everything, including staying healthy. Quentin was a disaster last year, but he was pretty good the year before, posting a 144 wRC+ that is even better than Kemp’s 2014 number. When healthy, he can probably still hit a little bit, with Steamer projecting a 114 wRC+ next year. Quentin is likely to get dumped on an AL team who can DH him now that Kemp is around to take his place, however.

So the marginal upgrade of replacing Quentin with Kemp is probably closer to two wins than three wins. Except, to get Kemp, they had to give up Yasmani Grandal, who was a legitimate big leaguer himself, and a couple of interesting prospects. Grandal’s problems holding down the running game — and the pitching staff’s preference for throwing to Rene Rivera — might have signaled that Grandal was likely to split his time between catcher and first base, but even that’s how you see him, there’s still value in having a guy who can hit a little bit and at least give you the flexibility to serve as the backup catcher as well.

Let’s ignore Grandal’s positive framing numbers for a second, and pretend that he really is a lousy defensive catcher. Toss in the knee problems, and all of the sudden you have a guy who should probably take the Mike Napoli career path. When the Angels foolishly gave up Napoli for the chance to acquire Vernon Wells — an aging, overrated name value outfielder who couldn’t come close to justifying his inflated salary — the same arguments were made at the time. The Rangers ignored those arguments, put Napoli behind the plate for 60 games and let him DH another 80, and promptly went to the World Series.

This deal is basically the same template as the Angels trade, and Wells was actually coming off a better overall season when Toronto dumped his salary on Anaheim. The Angels took on $80 million over four years and gave up Napoli for what they thought was a big upgrade in the outfield; he gave them +0.7 WAR over two years, then they paid the Yankees $28 million to take him off their hands. That was probably the worst trade any team has made in the last decade, and the Padres are basically making the same type of trade all over again.

No, Grandal’s not going to spike up to a 179 wRC+, like Napoli did in his first year in Texas. And yes, the Padres don’t have the DH option, so Grandal is less useful to them than Napoli would have been to Anaheim, or was to Texas. But it’s not like Yonder Alonso is an All-Star first baseman or anything, so Grandal wasn’t entirely blocked in San Diego. Even if the Padres didn’t see Grandal as a catcher going forward, you could make a pretty decent case that he projects as well at first base as Alonso does. Losing depth at both positions erases at least part of the gains the Padres can expect Kemp to add.

Even if you think Grandal is only a +1 WAR bench player, that’s still roughly half of the upgrade Kemp is over a Quentin/Will Venable combination. Now, we’re looking at the Padres being maybe a win better, two wins if you really like Kemp and are really down on Grandal. So maybe now the Padres are the 25th best team in baseball instead of the 29th best team, at least, as long as they don’t trade Kennedy, Ross, or Cashner.

But that’s just 2015. Grandal is 26 and has some upside left. Kemp is 30 and his body is breaking down. Over the next few years, the gap between them is going to shrink, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Grandal produced more value, by himself, than Kemp does over the next four seasons. The arcs won’t be the same, as Kemp will produce more value up front, but it’s not clear that the Padres should be prioritizing short-term wins, and they might have been better off with a younger improving player than an older declining one.

And that’s without even touching the financial difference. The Padres are reportedly picking up $75 million of his remaining contract, which is $75 million they now can’t spend on a real big league shortstop or third baseman, or to replace the pitchers they’re thinking about trading away. The Padres aren’t a big revenue team that can just wave away big expenditures and say that there’s more where that came from. Paying Kemp means that they can’t pay someone else, and $15 million a year for what he provides isn’t exactly a huge bargain, especially since he’s likely to get worse going forward.

So in exchange for a significant chunk of their budget and some young talent that clearly had value to the Dodgers, the Padres get a marginal upgrade in a short-term window where marginal upgrades aren’t likely to help much. At least in the Angels acquisition of Vernon Wells, they were in a position to try and take avantage of what they thought was an upgrade. They were wrong about the evaluation of the two players, but at least it made sense for them to try and push forward their present roster.

Instead, this deal will likely boil down to arguments about things that aren’t encapsulated on the field. This trade will be about Kemp’s star power and what that will do for ticket sales or television rights fees or team morale. The Padres better hope that Kemp really does add a lot of value in those areas, because I don’t really see any way he adds enough baseball value to justify this deal from their perspective.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

The Padres have moved away from acquiring cheap but injury-prone outfielders to acquiring expensive AND injury-prone outfielders. Grandal’s PED suspension might have been a factor, considering that the Padres also non-tendered Evereth Cabrera.

…for a topic closer to home for Dave, now that the Dodgers have started moving outfielders, could the Mariners acquire the platoon of Ethier (or Crawford) + Scott Van Slyke, with Dodgers eating half of E/C’s salary? Before the Rollins deal I thought maybe Brad Miller could be involved(with Dodgers maybe adding something to the deal).

7 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Hahahahahahah (no).

7 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

Don’t be a dick. Why don’t you explain why his proposition wouldn’t work

7 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

If the price got higher and higher, how come they got so little for him??????