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Have the Dodgers given up on Matt Kemp?

If the Dodgers didn’t want to play Matt Kemp, circumstances have now dictated that they’ll have to.

Kemp has been benched for the Dodgers’ past five games, making only two pinch-hit appearances during that span. Sitting Kemp down was especially curious on Monday, when the Reds’ Johnny Cueto was the opposing pitcher. Against Cueto, Kemp has a .500 average (6-for-12) with two home runs.

Small sample size? Sure, but isn’t it always that way with batter vs. pitcher match-ups? For most managers, a .500 average against any pitcher would be enough to get him in the lineup. The argument could be made that Kemp “owns” Cueto, yet didn’t play.

According to manager Don Mattingly, Kemp’s diminished defense in center field is the reason for his benching. The breaking point was reportedly last Thursday’s performance against the Mets, when Kemp let several balls go over his head, including a triple by Curtis Granderson and double by Jon Niese, which led to runs being scored.

The 29-year-old outfielder had surgery on his ankle during the offseason and battled hamstring injuries last year, issues which seem to have taken a toll on his ability to play center field. At least in Mattingly’s eyes.

“No, it doesn’t look the same,” Mattingly told reporters, including ESPN Los Angeles’ Mark Saxon, following last Thursday’s game. “Just the burst, the kind of outrun-the-ball burst. Talking with Matt, I don’t hear anything [physically] that he can’t play. We’re just not seeing the burst.”

Kemp himself admits that he doesn’t have the same explosiveness, but also acknowledges that he could get better jumps on balls in center field and stop making mental mistakes like bobbling balls instead of fielding them cleanly.

Though advanced defensive metrics are more accurate over a longer span of time, rather than one season (or even one-third of a season, as the case is here), the numbers back Mattingly up. Kemp ranks as the worst defensive center fielder in the NL, according to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating, credited with -11 Defensive Runs Saved and allowing nearly eight runs more than the average player at his position.

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In the meantime, Mattingly seems to believe that Andre Ethier gives them a better chance to win playing center field, something virtually no one would likely have predicted coming into this season. Ethier is a below-average defender in center, but compared to how Kemp has been playing thus far, that’s apparently an improvement.

That pushes Kemp over to left field, a position he hasn’t played in eight years — when he was a rookie.

Presumably, someone athletic enough to play center field should be able to adapt to a corner outfield position. But for a player who’s already having difficulty getting jumps on the ball and playing proper angles, the adjustment might be more pronounced. Getting some practice time to become acclimated to left field was presumably another reason Kemp hadn’t been in the starting lineup for the past five games.

Yet with Carl Crawford suffering a sprained ankle in Tuesday’s 6-3 win over the Reds, the Dodgers will likely now have to play Kemp in left field, whether the team considers him ready or not. If Scott Van Slyke is penciled in as the starting left fielder for Wednesday’s game, that could either indicate Mattingly doesn’t think Kemp is ready to play the position or that this whole situation isn’t really about defense.

At some point, the Dodgers will have to make a move to break up their outfield logjam. Outfielder Joc Pederson is destroying Triple-A pitching, batting .347 with a 1.096 OPS, 15 home runs, 32 RBI and 13 stolen bases. From all accounts, he’s a strong defender in center field as well. But the 22-year-old won’t be called up unless he’ll play every day.

Crawford’s injury douses any urgency the team might feel to trade anyone, but with three outfielders under contract until at least 2017 (at a combined cost of $282 million), a spot will eventually have to be cleared.

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What’s funny is that it wasn’t so long ago that Ethier was the odd man out of the Dodgers’ outfield mix, wondering when he’d play and looking more like a candidate to be traded than crack the starting lineup. But with Kemp and Crawford frequently getting injured, general manager Ned Colletti was smart not to thin out his outfield depth. That is, unless Colletti just didn’t find any willing trade partners to make a deal.

However, Kemp now appears to be the guy that the Dodgers want to squeeze out. The team reportedly explored the possibility of trading him during the offseason, but couldn’t draw any interest (or the right offer). Considering that Kemp was coming off surgery, in addition to having six years and $128 million remaining on his contract, that wasn’t much of a surprise.

It seems curious that the Dodgers would bench Kemp, rather than showcase him for potential trade suitors. But perhaps the worry was that his subpar defense would further diminish his value and the team wants to make sure it can put a better product on the field.

As a former NL MVP runner-up three years removed from a 39-homer and 40-steal season, Kemp would surely draw plenty of interest from other teams if he proves himself healthy and able. The Rangers, Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Nationals, Tigers, Reds and White Sox could all be a fit in baseball terms, if not financially. However, his contract seems more likely to be moved in an offseason deal rather than during the season.

So unless Colletti can move Kemp before the July 31 trade deadline (or the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline), the Dodgers will have to figure out how to make this work. Maybe Crawford’s injury has already solved the dilemma, at least temporarily. But Kemp has been making his displeasure known in the team clubhouse and through the media, and there could be some lingering resentments from that. How Mattingly (and Colletti) handle this could determine whether an absurdly talented team stays in the NL West and wild-card races.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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