Dodgers should gamble on trading Kemp

The Dodgers are in a box.

Their starting pitching is not good enough for the team to win the NL West, much less advance in the postseason.

Their farm system lacks the major-league ready prospects necessary to acquire a pitcher such as Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee.

And their ownership … well, let’s just say that no one should expect Frank McCourt to bust open his checkbook anytime soon.

General manager Ned Colletti needs to be pragmatic. He needs to be creative.

He needs to trade center fielder Matt Kemp.

Yes, the idea is bold, probably too bold for some as the Dodgers prepare to host the Yankees this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 7:10 p.m. ET).

But hear me out before shrieking to the high heavens via your favorite blog or message board.

Colletti was correct, if impolitic, when he said in late April that Kemp’s defense and baserunning were below-average. Kemp’s offense this season isn’t so hot, either, and his attitude, for some in the Dodgers’ organization, remains an issue.

I don’t want to overreact to the Dodgers’ current 3-9 stretch, which has come mostly during interleague play; the Dodgers’ interleague schedule is insanely difficult, and right-hander Chad Billingsley, recovering from a strained right groin, has been absent for most of it.

I also don’t want to overreact to a relatively small sample from Kemp, who last season became only one of 16 players in major-league history to reach 25 homers and 30 stolen bases before his 26th birthday.

But here’s one issue that no one talks about:

Kemp, Billingsley, right fielder Andre Ethier, catcher Russell Martin and first baseman James Loney all are eligible for free agency after the 2012 season.

The Dodgers probably would not keep the entire group intact even if their owner was Steinbrenner-esque, which he certainly is not.

The uncertainty surrounding McCourt, who is in the middle of an ugly, expensive divorce from his wife, Jamie, makes it difficult for Colletti to plan for the future.

Heck, Colletti probably does not even know how much money will be available to him before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. All he knows is that his payroll keeps going down.

The Dodgers’ immediate problem is that their rotation, 11th in the NL in ERA, is not close to good enough, not when the two teams ahead of them in the West, the Padres and Giants, rank 2-3.

Long-term, the Dodgers face a different concern — deciding which of their core young players to keep, and which to let go.

While Kemp, Ethier and Co. are under control for two more seasons, the Dodgers actually will want to act before then; their 2012 free agents will be in line for big paydays after next season as they enter their final year of arbitration.

Why, then, single out Kemp as trade bait?

Because Ethier looks like he could be a superstar, and because Kemp, for all his flaws, would bring a greater return than the others.

Colletti could dangle Kemp to the Braves, who are deep in young pitching, in need of a right-handed hitting outfielder and in position to exchange a center fielder, Melky Cabrera, who played for Dodgers manager Joe Torre in New York.

Colletti even could make Kemp part of a larger deal with the Mariners in which the Dodgers would get prospects in addition to two or three months of Lee, then combine those prospects with their own to acquire the Royals’ David DeJesus or another center fielder.

All kinds of possibilities would be out there, and you know what? If Kemp is stagnating — and that actually would be a kind description for his play thus far — then the Dodgers should trade him before he starts to lose value.

True, Kemp is still young, and some players — the White Sox’s Alex Rios and Twins’ Delmon Young are recent examples — just require more patience.

Kemp, though, is starting to look like a classic change-of-scenery guy.

His OPS-plus this season is 110, down from 125 last season. He might be only one hot streak from returning to form, but the rest of his game is not pretty.

Kemp’s base-running is going backward — he is 10-for-20 in stolen-base attempts after going 34-for-42 last season, and was inexcusably picked off at second in the ninth inning of a brutal loss to the Angels on Wednesday night.

Martin also committed an egregious base-running error that inning, prompting the normally unflappable Torre to remark, “You need more than ability to play this game. You need to be able to think.”

And not just on the bases.

Kemp’s regression on defense, at least judging from the advanced metrics, also is alarming.

His ultimate zone rating is the worst of any major-league center fielder; he is 34.2 runs below average per 150 defensive games, while the next worst defensive center fielder, the Braves’ Nate McLouth is negative 22.1.

The plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online portray Kemp in an equally poor light, ranking him 35th among qualifying center fielders.

Again, the samples are small, and the metrics are not infallible. But a 26-year-old center fielder with Kemp’s athletic ability should rate better, don’t you think?

The danger of trading Kemp is obvious — he is an explosive talent who could haunt the Dodgers for the next decade. But no team should operate out of such fear; the purpose of trading Kemp would be to make the club better.

The Dodgers are in a box. Trading Kemp is one way out.

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