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Kemp has renewed faith in Dodgers

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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GLENDALE, Ariz.

The team meeting had ended 15 minutes earlier, and the back fields at Camelback Ranch were nearly empty of Los Angeles Dodgers personnel. It was 1:20 p.m. — or half past lunchtime, for those with growling stomachs.

Dee Gordon, the son of former big-league pitcher Tom Gordon, stuck around to take extra ground balls. Gordon, a star shortstop prospect, could be an everyday major leaguer as early as next year. He’s so wiry that new manager Don Mattingly said earlier Tuesday (not entirely in jest) that the 22-year-old needs to eat more often.

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In other words, Dee Gordon is the type of player who is supposed to work overtime under the warm afternoon sun.

But he wasn’t the only Dodger left on the diamond.

A strong-yet-slimmed-down figure was darting side to side in center field, gobbling up ground balls off the bat of first base coach Davey Lopes. He was trying to perfect his pre-pitch preparation — knees bent, torso upright, momentum slightly forward. The idea was to read the ball and take a quick first step, eliminating false movements.

Fundamental work. You know, the kind of thing critics say Matt Kemp doesn’t do often enough.

The kind of thing that could turn Kemp into an MVP candidate — and the Dodgers into a contender.

“He wants to redeem himself,” said Rodney McCray, the Dodgers’ minor league outfield and base-running coordinator, who encouraged (and teased) Kemp during the drill. “He wants to go for the Gold Glove. He wants to put up his numbers. He’s refocused. He’s got a great work ethic.

“He knows he can do better. He’s hungry.”

McCray’s assessment may have included more positive statements about Kemp than the 26-year-old heard through all of 2010.

During the season’s first half, general manager Ned Colletti criticized Kemp’s performance in a radio interview. By the end of the year, Kemp’s rift with old-school coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa became a matter of public knowledge.

“You hear things,” said Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who spent last season with the San Diego Padres. “We played them enough. I could see he wasn’t happy. Whatever was going on over here, he wasn’t happy at all. I remember a few times looking across the cage, and being like, ‘Come on, man. Smile! What are you doing?’ He’d throw on one for like five seconds. Then it would just disappear.

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“Environment plays a big part of that. I think with Don taking over, and the staff we have here, it’s a positive environment. Especially for Matt, I think that’s a big key. You want to be in an environment where you can be successful. When there’s a lot of negativity around, it’s hard to keep coming back every day. You don’t want to fight through something that you enjoy doing.”

Let’s be honest: Kemp didn’t do much on the field to help his cause. His batting average went down. His strikeouts went up. His outfield assists went down. His errors went up.

Why?

“In this game, the most important thing is you can’t stop having fun,” Kemp said. “This is a job. But I don’t want this to ever become a real job. You want to work hard. You want to have success. But you also need to have fun at the same time. You have to want to come to the stadium every day.

“We weren’t clicking (last year). We weren’t winning. Personally, things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go.”

And now?

“I’m definitely happy,” he said. “I just know that all the coaches here want to win. We’re all working hard. Just going around the bases with Lopes, seeing how he interacts with everybody, he’s positive. Mattingly has always been positive. I like the atmosphere that’s going on.

“Donnie B’s got a little swagger. You’d see him when he was on first base, playing for the Yankees, up to bat, he had swag. Anybody that got swag, man, he can be my homeboy.”

(An Internet search for “Matt Kemp” and “Joe Torre is my homeboy” turned up zero results. Infer from that what you will.)

In all seriousness, Colletti deserves credit for hiring a staff that could wring the maximum performance from Kemp’s immense potential. To be clear: Torre is on his way to the Hall of Fame. Bowa and Schaefer are excellent baseball men. But each is 65 or older. Mattingly, 49, probably has a better chance of connecting on a personal level with current players.

Apparently, he already has.

“His communication with the players this winter and this spring has been exceptional — not just good, but exceptional,” Colletti said. “This guy is on the way to being one of the best managers in baseball.”

Colletti and Kemp say they are on excellent terms now, after several conversations during the second half of last year, including one in particular that stuck with Colletti. (“Man-to-man, hearing each other out,” the GM said. “I’m glad we did it.”) Just as important: Colletti gave Kemp and fellow franchise cornerstone Andre Ethier a rotation that can win. The starting five threw an average of 197 innings apiece last year.

For the rotation, maintaining last year’s performance would be more than sufficient. But the lineup must improve. The Dodgers don’t have a single player who finished last season with 90 RBIs. Colletti thinks as many as three hitters — Kemp, Ethier and James Loney — could top 100 this year.

Don’t be surprised if Kemp has the biggest year of them all. As he pushed Tuesday’s workday well into the afternoon, you could squint into the sunlight and make out the early signs of a revival.

Tagged: Dodgers, Matt Kemp

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