Kemp most valuable in trying times for Dodgers
For his 27th birthday, Matt Kemp's gift to the beleaguered Dodgers fans was a game-winning home run, be it down the road a piece in San Diego.
Essentially, most of the 2011 Dodgers story has been the ownership tales of Frank McCourt.
But when Kemp hit his birthday homer, it left the Dodgers 79-77 with six games to play. Now, 79-77 may be modest in terms of the Dodger tradition, but this is a team that was 37-51 on July 6, whose conditions at Dodger Stadium had rotted to the point one player called their home park "a rathole."
Enough cannot be said for Don Mattingly's ability to hold the center together and cobble, for Ned Colletti's patience in the Mondo Bizarro, and for the astounding seasons of Clayton Kershaw, who may win the pitching Triple Crown, and for Kemp.
"I think a lot of us have tried to not worry about things we have no control over," says Kemp. "There's nothing I can do about certain things. I just go out, play and ignore all the outside things."
Start with the consideration that on July 6 they were 14 games under .500 and had been outscored by 44 runs. When Kemp homered Friday night, it meant the Dodgers were 42-26 since that night and had outscored their opponents by 72 runs, with a mass of injuries, including the knee that hobbled Andre Ethier and forced an operation.
Yes, Kershaw beat the Giants five times, four of those wins over Tim Lincecum. Yes, on the night that Kemp hit that 37th home run and tied Albert Pujols for the National League lead, Ryan Braun hit the home run that clinched the Central Division for the Brewers. But at the risk of setting off yet another MVP-defining firestorm, from this scenic overlook Kemp is the National League's most valuable player. And before beginning the litany of his statistical achievements, let it be noted that his 37th home run came in PETCO Park, where flyballs die, and that his numbers have been accumulated playing nearly 100 games at Dodger Stadium, PETCO and San Francisco's AT&T Park.
Kemp has a chance in these final days to win the Triple Crown. On Saturday morning, he was hitting .326, three points behind Braun and Jose Reyes, he was tied with Pujols with 37 homers and led the National League with 119 RBIs. He is first in runs (110), first in total bases (335), second in stolen bases (40), first in OPS (.987), first in OPS-plus (172), first in runs created (137) and first in WAR (9.6).
"He ought to win a Gold Glove, which is especially significant playing in the five spacious parks in the National League West," says one divisional front office person.
"Kemp and Kershaw carried us through rough times and really made it possible for us to finish this way," says Colletti.
James Loney has upped his OPS by 270 points since the All-Star break. Juan Rivera leads the league in RBIs in September. The bullpen -- especially Kenley Jansen, with his 15.96 strikeouts per nine innings ratio -- has been dominating.
The Dodgers have Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands, and they start to think about a rotation built around Kershaw with Nate Eovaldi, Rubby De La Rosa, Zach Lee, Chad Billingsley, et al., in a couple of years ... then think about having an owner focusing on the ballclub, not lawyers' fees and real estate taxes.
Kemp reiterates "I'd like to sign a long-term deal and stay in Los Angeles." Which is an issue.
Both Kemp and Ethier are free agents at the end of the 2012 season, and it doesn't take Kemp's agent Dave Stewart to tell you that Matt Kemp on the market at age 28 is going to cost a lot more than an estate in Cotuit. Colletti has been given free rein to do business as normally as possible amidst the crossfire of bankruptcy and legal hearings. The Dodgers have $30-35M coming off the books this winter, so conceivably they could do long-term, back-loaded deals with Kemp and Ethier that would be covered by a new ownership -- one that will be building its own regional television network -- and keep the payroll close to the current $98M level.
Remember, a year ago, there were a lot of people who, behind Kemp's back, wanted him traded. There were anonymous quotes about focus and attention span, fundamentals, whatever.
"My approach last winter was to ignore all that stuff," says Kemp. "When I got to Spring Training, I had turned the page and focused on the present and future. Don Mattingly really helped me. From the time he came to the Dodgers, he always had my back. He's always been in my corner, always believed in me. He's a big reason this team never gave up when times were bad."
Kemp, Kershaw, Jansen and several other players have been major players in saving what appeared to be a lost season. Granted, third place and two games over .500 isn't much, but what would it have been without Kemp? He has had the most value of any player in the National League.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.