For a player with a contract many consider untradeable, Matt Kemp sure has been traded a lot. Since signing a eight-year, $160 million contract extension with the Dodgers in November 2011, he has been dealt four times. In 2014, Los Angeles sent him to the Padres, who shipped him to Braves, who returned him back to the Dodgers, who traded him to the Reds this offseason.

Could Dick Williams and Nick Krall deal Kemp a fifth time before his contract expires at the end of 2019? Absent an obvious fit for Kemp on the current team, it’s a question many have asked since the eight-player trade was finalized in December.

Why a Matt Kemp Trade Makes Sense

There’s no clear path to playing time for Kemp. That was the case before Nick Senzel was named a candidate for the everyday center field job. Kemp is strictly a corner outfielder, where the Reds already have a surplus. Yasiel Puig will get the lion’s share of time in right field. Manager David Bell said he wants to get Jesse Winker regular playing time in left field. If Senzel wins the starting job in center (or takes the job after the Reds play the service time game), that puts Scott Schebler — a capable big-league hitter in his own right — on the bench as the backup at all three outfield spots. Derek Dietrich is also likely to make the Reds out of spring training and has experience in left and right field. Michael Lorenzen is even getting reps in the outfield this spring.

Kemp would presumably fit into the equation as a solid pinch-hitting option and a periodic starter against left-handed pitchers. His defense is a clear step down from every other outfield option aside from maybe Winker. It will be tough for him to get regular at-bats assuming Winker plays almost every day. Kemp is also far from a guarantee to repeat his 2018 performance. Only two years ago, he was below replacement level with the Braves (-0.7 fWAR, -1.3 bWAR). Last season showed he can still hit, but regression could also come his way, especially at age 34.

The presence of Phillip Ervin, who doesn’t have much left to prove at Triple-A, further makes Kemp expendable. He saw 247 plate appearances with the Reds in 2018 and hit .252/.324/.404 with seven home runs in a backup role. The former first-round pick is still just 26 years old and still has room to grow into a solid contributor off the bench. He could fill that final bench role and at a much lower cost than Kemp. A trade would free up a spot for Ervin, who looks destined to return to Louisville as of now.

Despite his age and contract, Kemp still has trade value as well. The Reds likely wouldn’t have to release him to get him off the roster. Although Cincinnati wouldn’t get a huge haul, he’s coming off his best offensive season since 2014 (.290/.338/.481, 122 wRC+) and could be attractive as a designated hitter for an American League team. While he’s owed $21 million this season, the Dodgers and Padres are both paying a portion of that money. Whatever team deals for him wouldn’t have to make a long-term commitment or allocate an absurd portion of 2018 payroll to afford him.

Why the Reds Could Keep Matt Kemp

Depth isn’t a bad thing, and Kemp would provide value as a bench player. Let’s say he hits at a league-average level (100 wRC+) in 300 plate appearances. The last Reds player to do that while primarily coming off the bench was Chris Heisey in 2011. Anyone would take that kind of production compared to what the team received from the Jack Hannahans and Skip Schumakers of the world for the better part of the last six seasons.

At this point in Kemp’s career, the only better role than coming off the bench is as a DH. It would allow the Reds to largely hide his atrocious defense while still getting offensive production. Even in his worst season, Kemp never hit fewer than 19 home runs when getting at least 400 plate appearances. He has more than 20 home runs in all but one year in which he had at least 500 trips to the plate.

Kemp provides the most value against left-handers, with a 143 career wRC+ against them. He could make some starts here and there against southpaws, especially if Winker has a hard time handling them, and provide more value with the bat than he takes away with his defense and baserunning.

The contract is the No. 1 reason he’s been traded so many times. However, he has only one year remaining and is hardly weighing the Reds down financially in 2018. The Dodgers sent $7 million to the Reds in the December trade, and the Padres are also still paying Kemp. The money, ultimately, isn’t a huge deal, as the Reds’ current projected payroll — while higher than it’s ever been — is well below the league average at a projected $121 million.

Analyzing the Decision

Trading Kemp isn’t vital for the Reds. He’s a free agent after the season, so the team could simply enjoy his production off the bench in 2019 and part ways in November. But where is he going to get at-bats? The only player he could conceivably take time away from is Winker. And it seems unlikely that the Reds will sacrifice Winker’s development by putting him into a platoon situation with a player who’s only in Cincinnati for one year. There’s more future value in letting Winker continue to get more looks against left-handed pitching. Unless Winker turns into a pumpkin against southpaws, Kemp probably isn’t getting more than a start or two per week.

There’s a legitimate argument for keeping Kemp as a slugger off the bench. But could the Reds acquire a player who helps them more in the long-term by trading Kemp? It’s possible, especially if the Reds are willing to eat some of his contract in the deal. And if the Reds don’t trade Kemp, will he provide substantially more value as a fifth outfielder than Ervin? Unlikely.

Barring an injury, which is always a possibility, the choice to keep or trade Kemp may come down to Ervin and how the team views him moving forward. In a perfect world, the Reds would like to keep Ervin in the big leagues and let him continue to develop against major-league pitching. He turns 27 in July and could potentially contribute in a bench role for years to come. He’s a capable hitter at the plate, bringing decent pop and on-base skills that have played well off the bench so far in his 106 big-league games (95 wRC+). Kemp, however, is 34 and leaving after 2019. From that standpoint, keeping Ervin and jettisoning Kemp would seem like the obvious choice.

But the Reds’ front office has been vocal about wanting to start cracking open the window of contention in 2019. It’s why they traded for other players with one year left in Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, and Yasiel Puig. While they’re not going for broke, they’re certainly not a lock for last in the NL Central again. If the team wants to maximize its win total this year, it may keep Kemp and option Ervin to the minor leagues. Right now, Kemp likely provides more overall value, even if it won’t be by a huge margin in a part-time role.

Kemp isn’t as adept at drawing a walk as Ervin, but he brings significantly more power to the table. Even in his worst offensive years, Kemp has never posted less than a 98 wRC+. Ervin has a career 95 wRC+. That’s not an entirely fair comparison since Ervin has just over 300 plate appearances under his belt. However, there’s little disputing that Kemp has the better bat even at 34 years old.

The Reds can’t completely ignore Kemp’s age and decline in performance prior to 2018. Kemp could certainly regress at least somewhat, in 2019. That process started in the second half of last year. He hit out of his mind to begin the season (137 wRC+, .369 wOBA in the first half) and earned an All-Star nod because of it. After the break, he slowed down significantly (97 wRC+, .310 wOBA) as his batted-ball luck evened out. As Kemp’s second half showed, he’s probably not going to maintain a .339 batting average on balls in play again in 2019. His career mark is above average at .338, but he hadn’t posted a mark better than .318 since 2014. If he maintains a 43.5% hard-contact rate (23rd among qualified hitters last year), however, the drop-off may not be significant.

Defensively, Ervin is undoubtedly better. The metrics aren’t particularly high on him (-7 DRS, -11.5 UZR/150), but he has only 617 innings of experience and hasn’t played one position consistently. Those metrics have flaws to begin with, and the sample size isn’t large enough to judge Ervin’s abilities. Most scouts and prospect experts, including Doug Gray, felt his defense was above average at every position except center field coming through the minor leagues.

But even if he’s only an average defender moving forward, that’s far better than Kemp. Although he was a decent defender at one time, Kemp is currently one of the worst outfielders in the game. Since 2014, only Jay Bruce and Khris Davis have a worse FanGraphs Defensive rating among outfielders with 2,000 innings played. Kemp has the lowest UZR/150 (-12.7) and fewest DRS (-81) in that span. Relatively speaking, Statcast was kinder to Kemp last year in Outs Above Average (-6); he was tied for 69th out of 87 qualified outfielders.

In short, Ervin’s defense probably doesn’t put him far enough ahead of Kemp to warrant a roster spot if no trade occurs. But Kemp is more or less a superfluous player for the Reds in 2019. It won’t hurt the Reds tremendously to trade him if an AL team wants to upgrade at DH and will send any player of value in return. If Ervin plays average defense and hits for a bit more power to go with his solid eye at the plate, it’s not far-fetched to think he could prove more valuable than Kemp if the latter regresses. Even if that doesn’t happen, the drop-off from Kemp to Ervin isn’t that notable when talking about a fifth outfielder.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison. Image was slightly altered. Licensing can be found here.

31 Responses

  1. Sean

    Give him playing time early on, hopefully he performs and can build his value, then trade him at any point when it even appears to be high. I love Kemp and I’m happy he’s here, I just wish his arrival was about 10 years ago. Build that value and let a team buy him from us for a couple prospects.

  2. Mason Red

    So must this franchise always be about trading for prospects? Is there an end to this endless rebuild? Were the offseason moves,including Kemp,just for show? Oh to have a franchise like the Phillies.

    • Gaffer

      That’s what Reds are left with, so that is the most any team would pay.

  3. $$

    He’s been raking this spring and used wisely is a + guy on a team. Plus every single OF’er we have on the roster has had a history of injuries. So keep him if you truly want to win, if not then trade him.

  4. CFD3000

    It all comes down to the return. Who is coming back in that trade, and if major leaguers, for how long? Without knowing the answer to that question this is just silly but interesting speculation. If there’s a match with an AL team that returns a high prospect or a young major leaguer with high upside, off goes Kemp. If not, keep him for 2019. And then of course we’ll be talking about a trade deadline deal… In any case it’s a nice problem to have.

  5. Shamrock

    I’m more concerned about keeping 2014 1st round pick Connor Joe in the organization than keeping 2013 1st rounder Ervin on the bench this season. (send Ervin to AAA and let him play everyday)
    Now, i can only see 3 ways of keeping Connor Joe:
    1) trade Kemp
    2) reassign Dietrich
    3) go light on relief pitching

  6. Badfish

    Easy solution. Winker/ Kemp platoon in left. Winker gets 400-500 PA, mostly against righties. Kemp gets around 250 PA mostly against lefties and hopefully rakes against them. Winker and Kemp both become more valuable.

    As much as I like the Dietrich signing, he is really the guy that doesn’t fit right now. A lefty who mashes righties and plays second, first, and left. At those positions the Reds have, you guessed it, lefties who mash righties. I’m all for Scooter and Votto getting some days off. But I’d rather they get them against tough lefties. Votto usually has pretty even splits, but if I recall correctly he struggled quite a bit vs southpaws last year. Scooter did OK vs lefties but is obviously much better against righties. And Winker didn’t handle lefties at all and mashed righties which is why Kemp should start vs lefties while Jessie leads off vs righties. Where does Dietrich fit in?

  7. Todd M.

    Kemp seems like he still has the potential to be a solid contributor and he gives the Reds strong depth or a powerful bench. He makes sense to keep in many respects but I have 2 concerns: (1) Jesse Winker’s development. I think it is really jerking Winker around to send him to AAA as insurance or to get another year of service (as at least one comment seemed to suggest), plus Winker could finish in the top 10 in the league in OBP. Second, what is the sense of how big a distraction Kemp might be if he isn’t playing regularly? He has stated directly he wants to play–and who can blame him (shouldn’t everyone want to play)–but what is the risk that he is not just a distraction but damaging to the team or clubhouse if he isn’t playing regularly? It is a question–I don’t know the answer–but I do wonder about the risk. Kemp has been impressive in spring training thus far–but, yes, it is just spring training. (Bonus point: keeping Kemp risks making Schebler even more of a forgotten man)

    • Indy Red Man

      Winker isn’t getting sent down so a guy in baseball’s nursing home can play every day. That’s ridiculous? Even the Buntaholic twins Price & Riggleman weren’t that stupid.

  8. wizeman

    i am with WV on this one. Once Senzels sentence in Louisville is commuted your outfield is winker, senzel and puig. Senzel needs a day off… puig or ervin can play center.
    Your choice is keep schebler or kemp…. i think schebler is better in a package if you need something

  9. Indy Red Man

    There are a few teams that can afford a $20 mil pinch-hitter. The Reds are not one of those teams.

    • JayTheRed

      Again its not 20 million. Its actually only about 11 or 12 million when you consider the 7 million that was sent over in the deal plus the portion of the deal that the Padres are paying too. Honestly I don’t know the exact number, it could be even less we are paying him in Cincy.

      I will also say yes it is a luxury that we have him on the bench and I’m ok if he starts 1 or 2 games a week.

  10. Seadog

    I have said from day one—Kemp will shine at GABP. No way you send Winker to AAA. My hope is Kemp Lf/Puig Cf/Winker Rf. Schebler is your #4. Senzel in AAA. Let those 3 starters each have a day off. Keep them fresh. Gives Sheb playing time. S

  11. CFD3000

    I don’t think we’ve seen Winker at full potential yet. It’s quite possible in two parallel universes that Winker has a better 2019 than Kemp if both play full time. Full health could make a big difference in Winker’s power numbers.

    I’ll be happy to see Kemp spell Puig and Winker once a week each (especially in for Winker against lefty starters) and get quite a few pinch hitting and double switch at bats in between. And he starts at DH in every AL park. But unless Winker gets hurt or is somehow just awful at the plate, he’s my starter in left.

    And absolute best case scenario for Kemp is a heroic, pinch hit, Gibson-esque World Series walk off home run for the Reds. We can dream, right?

    • Big Ed

      Winker is much better than Kemp offensively. He had a .405 OBP last year? Placing him ahead of both Christian Yelich and JD Martinez. And he did it with s bad shoulder, now healed. Among qualifiers, only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Joey Votto were higher. The Reds would be the laughingstock of baseball to ship him to AAA.

      Kemp almost certainly wants to play regularly. It isn’t going to happen in Cincinnati; Ervin is a better fit for this team, because he is faster, better and more flexible defensively, and hungrier and thus better suited for a bench role.

      If they can get somebody to take a couple of million of Kemp’s salary and a mid-level prospect, they should do it, for his sake and theirs.

      Kemp has some value to some team, but the question is which one? Cleveland? The Mets?

  12. Indy Red Man

    They could ride with Kemp for a while and he will probably produce if Bell spots him correctly and doesn’t expose him. Then you try to find a decent arm for him midseason. You just never know? The Reds picked up Nick Masset for fat Junior. Masset was outstanding for 2 years before he fell off the map while Junior was completely washed up by the time he went to the White Sox.

  13. andybado

    I like this “show all sides of the argument” article. One correction: the Padres are not paying a portion of Kemp’s salary. They are sending the Braves $2.5M this year as the remaining cash in the deal that sent Kemp to the Braves in 2016. (The Dodgers are also sending the Padres $3.5M this year in deal that sent Kemp to the Padres in 2015, so the Padres net $1M in Kemp-related cash.) All of that is separate from the Dodgers agreement with the Reds — to pay the Reds $7M in the deal acquiring Kemp.

    The Reds are paying Kemp $21.75M. But given the money they acquired from the Dodgers, they are in effect paying him $14.75M. To trade Kemp, they would most likely have to pass all of that Dodgers money plus a majority of the remaining to another team in order to get a return of any value. Even though he is a good hitter, I don’t see how any team would be willing to pay Kemp nearly $15M and give up a prospect for him.

  14. Tom Mitsoff

    I agree. I do not see the urgent need to trade a player with an established major league track record. While there was more to the big Reds-LA trade, in essence the Reds traded a $20-plus-million pitcher (Homer Bailey) who had absolutely no value for a $20-plus-million hitter who definitely has value and can still hit and contribute. Why the rush to get rid of him? Instead of flushing $20-plus-million down the toilet, the Reds front office found a way to get some value out of it. If Kemp causes bad vibes because he wants to play regularly, then go ahead and flush the toilet. If not, keep this established major league bat around to help win some games.

    • JayTheRed

      Just wanted to say. I agree and I feel he does have value to our team.

    • Roger Garrett

      Age and salary keep him in Cincy all year unless the stars align correctly and somebody believes he can make the difference at the trade deadline.Its happened before and could happen again but its not a bad thing if he is here all year.We play in a band box and his power plays big time.Give him some starts against lefties especially at home and give Winker a blow on occasion.

  15. Scott C

    I would trade Kemp before I would trade Schebler. Saying that Schebler will probably bring more value back but that is exactly why he should be kept. He will bring value down the road, Kemp will only bring value this year either by playing or in a trade. I don’t think the Reds should rush to get rid of him. So basically I’m saying I’m good either way with Kemp. Not good with trading Schebler.

  16. Jack Wilhelm

    Get ’em Mr. Leeman; with you 1000 percent.

    I wish Winker well and think he has the makings of a good OF, but Kemp has proven himself to be great. Need to ride him while we got him. Am a little worried folks are overestimating Jesse.

    • D Ray White

      Kemp was great years ago, not so much now. He’s still decent, and warrants a spot start/pinch hit role. Winker is the better player now, is part of the team’s long term plans, and deserves the playing time.

  17. Cbus

    Keep Kemp. Someone is going to get hurt. Play him instead of Winker or Puig (reverse platoon splits) against Lefties until injuries happen. Schebler in CF, Senzel in AAA. Problem solved.

  18. TR

    It appears Bob C has turned tempestuous during the current off-season.

  19. Big Ed

    Cleveland would work. Santana has played 140 games at 1B the last two years, and they just gave a minor league deal to Hanley Ramirez. Kemp is a better option than Ramirez. Plus, Kemp can play left field.

    The Mets need a LF until Cespedes gets healthy, which may take all year.

  20. TR

    Injuries happen to outfielders. Kemp could be the Kevin Mitchell of 2019 filling in where needed. And if the Reds are not in the Division hunt come August they can make a decision on Kemp at that time or later.

  21. Satchmo

    2019: Trade Kemp by the end of spring training. Go Winker, Senzel, Puig on opening day. Then trade Puig or Gennett after all-star break. Resign the one not traded.

    2020: Outfield of Winker, Trammell, Senzel or Puig. Infield of Votto, Peraza, Suarez, and Gennett or Senzel.

  22. Drrobo

    Not $20 million. Slowing Winker’s development cannot be allowed to happen and Ervin appears to fit the role that is available. Winker will never play first base. Aside from pitching which is the universal issue for every team, making a decision regarding Kemp is the biggest decision to be made (IMO) because it affects player development and clubhouse decorum. I’m not saying Kemp will be a problem, just that Senzel’s prensence cuts into time for Schebler as well. While I don’t want to see it happen, Schebler may end up being easier to trade with Trammel in the wings. It is not an easy thing to deal with but an important decision and must be done correctly.