Matt Kemp, Dodgers at odds over playing time
LOS ANGELES — Matt Kemp wears his frustration well. It’s etched across his face and in his voice. There is no way to hide it.
He is no longer the Dodgers’ everyday center fielder. He’s not even an everyday starter. He’s a player without a position, and if that sounds strange for someone who is three years removed from a runner-up finish for the National League MVP, it should.
Monday night, Kemp was missing from the starting lineup again as the Dodgers began a 10-game homestand at Dodger Stadium. That’s four games in a row, an embarrassing development for a prideful player.
But it goes further. Now the Dodgers will work him out in left field, a position he hasn’t played in eight years, his first season in the big leagues. Right now, it’s his best chance to get at-bats.
In the clubhouse before the game, when a reporter asked Kemp the last time he played left, he retorted, "2006. Google it. A long time ago."
The Dodgers clearly believe Kemp is still battling himself after surgery on his left ankle last October. He has neither the quick acceleration nor the stopping ability necessary to play center, and so working out in left may be his best route back. He began taking fly balls there before the game against the Cincinnati Reds.
"We still go back to him being 100 percent," manager Don Mattingly said. "We don’t feel like he’s moving like he did a couple of years ago. We still feel like maybe physically he’s back because he’s not on the medical report, but you see his steps sometimes where he doesn’t really want to stop hard and maybe it’s just getting over that, still a little fear of the ankle and where it’s at."
But there is no issue for Kemp. He’s healthy and ready to play.
"I feel good," he insisted. "Like I said, I just want to play."
But where to put him? Andre Ethier is playing well in center, although he is not the prototypical defender. But he gets good jumps on fly balls and runs good routes. In Yasiel Puig, Mattingly said, the Dodgers feel they have "the best right fielder in baseball."
That leaves left field, where Kemp could share time with Carl Crawford. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but it’s one Kemp can live with.
"It’s an outfield spot," he said. "Like I said, as long as I’m out there playing, it doesn’t matter. I just want to play."
That means sitting is not an option. While Kemp has not uttered a word of anger or dissatisfaction, he makes it clear he’s not content with a non-starting role.
"It’s frustrating any day you’re not playing," he said. "I’m here to play baseball. I’m here to help my team win any way possible."
But clearly, Kemp and the Dodgers are at odds. He says he’s healthy; the Dodgers wonder if he is, at least in his willingness to push his ankle. Right now, it’s their call.
"I’m not going to say whether anything is mental or physical," Mattingly said. "That’s something for the player to answer. But I can talk personally (about) coming back from an injury. Even though you out there and you feel like you’re 100 percent, there’s doubts in your mind at times. What can I withstand? How much work can I do? That’s always the barrier for guys, not just Matt."
And until he clears it, Kemp won’t be playing in center field. Or left, for that matter.