The Artful Dodgers: Processing Kemp, Kendrick, and the Rest of Los Angeles’s Historic Winter Meetings Spree

Nick Ut/AP Photo

In one of the craziest binges by any team at any winter meetings, the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off five major moves Wednesday and early Thursday, sending a former MVP-caliber star packing, overhauling their infield, reshaping the back of their rotation, restoring peace in the Korean peninsula, and possibly setting the stage for even more moves to come.

Midday Wednesday, news broke that the Dodgers had acquired shortstop Jimmy Rollins and cash from the Phillies in exchange for as-yet-unannounced minor leaguers. Shortly thereafter, L.A. finalized a deal to send second baseman Dee Gordon, veteran starting pitcher Dan Haren, infielder Miguel Rojas, and $12.5 million in cash to the Marlins for prospects Andrew Heaney, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes, and Chris Hatcher. The Dodgers then signed free-agent starter Brandon McCarthy to a four-year, $48 million contract.

Later that night, new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his front-office mates flipped Heaney to the Angels for second baseman Howie Kendrick. Finally, at the crack of dawn on Thursday, the Dodgers banged out a long-rumored but still shocking deal to move the once-prominent Matt Kemp (and backup catcher Tim Federowicz) to the division rival Padres for catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitchers Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin.

As you might imagine, I have lots of thoughts about all of this!

The Dodgers Moved Kemp at the Right Time

matt-kemp-dodgers-padres-triVictor Decolongon/Getty Images

By name recognition alone, the biggest deal is the one that sends Kemp to Coronado for Christmas. As recently as 2011, he led the National League in homers, RBIs, runs scored, total bases, and OPS+ while playing the premium position of center field (and winning a not-at-all deserved Gold Glove); the only reason he didn’t take the MVP that season was because Ryan Braun had better teammates. MVP or not, the Dodgers rewarded Kemp with 700 wheelbarrows full of money (eight years, $160 million) in a buy-high move for the ages. Conspicuous timing aside, Kemp was just 27 years old at the time, he’d played in 155 or more games for four straight years, and he was the clear complement to Clayton Kershaw as the club’s superstar position player, making an extension of some kind a no-brainer for an organization flushed with cash.

Then the injuries started. The very next season, Kemp played just 106 games while battling hamstring injuries, a bruised knee, and left shoulder woes. That last malady wound up being the most damaging despite the short in-season absence it caused, as it proved to be a detached labrum that required surgery. Unsurprisingly, injuries absolutely destroyed Kemp’s 2013 campaign, with additional ankle and hamstring ailments combining to limit him to just 73 games played and the shoulder issues playing a major role in squashing his season line down to a relatively lowly .270/.328/.395 with just six home runs two years after he’d blasted 39 of ’em. Kemp capped that nightmare season by going under the knife for yet another left shoulder surgery.

The first two months of his 2014 season included more regular turns in the lineup, but came with such ugly offensive and defensive numbers that it looked like Kemp might be headed for oblivion. From April 4 through June 4, he batted just .238/.291/.398, struck out 55 times in 181 at-bats, and played like a geriatric tortoise in center field due to the litany of injuries that by that point included surgeries on both ankles within a span of five months. Trade rumors swirled around the fallen star, but at the time the notion of unloading a former five-tool player who now needed a walker to get off his couch and was still owed well more than $100 million seemed like the most preposterous proposition ever, with the Dodgers likely needing to cover a giant chunk of Kemp’s contract just to get him the hell out of town.

But Kemp bounced back in the second half, rediscovering his power stroke and rekindling his trade value. And it paid off for the Dodgers, who got some real talent back from the Padres. Grandal has put up inconsistent major league numbers and has a PED suspension on his résumé, but he’s also a former first-round pick with serious offensive potential for a catcher, is just 26 years old, and offers four years of club control, making him a nice safety blanket as 33-year-old catcher A.J. Ellis nears free agency. Wieland is a 24-year-old starter with back-of-the-rotation potential and just a handful of major league innings, while Eflin is a 20-year-old righty who just made it through a season in the California League without falling apart, which is a noble feat.

The Dodgers will cover $31 million of the $107 million left on Kemp’s contract, making this somewhat less of a relief for them and somewhat more of a reasonable gamble for the Padres. But L.A. might have also gotten something worth that cost: a long-awaited everyday spot in center field for blue-chipper Joc Pederson, a young, dynamic player who’s ready to be a regular contributor.

L.A. may well have sold Kemp at exactly the right time. Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi aren’t slaves to the recency effect, recognizing that Kemp’s strong finish in 2014 didn’t really change any of the other factors that had led to the longtime trade rumors, including the outfield logjam and his hefty contract. Instead of viewing Kemp’s elite .311/.372/.561 performance over the final 99 games of the season as a sign of rebirth, they viewed it as a boost in trade value that would allow them to more easily move a guy still owed $21 million–plus a year for five seasons.

For a team trying to accomplish the difficult twin goals of competing for a ring in 2015 and improving the roster and balance sheet for the long haul, the Kemp deal may well prove to be the best of what Friedman & Co. did on Dodger D-Day.

Speaking of Selling High …

The first 28 games of Gordon’s 2014 season were incredible, with the second baseman batting .357 and stealing 19 bases in 21 tries. During that stretch, watching the 5-foot-11, 170-pound water bug slapping infield hits into the turf, swiping bags on the first pitch, and racing around the bases on doubles and triples felt like being transported back to the days of Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, Willie Wilson and Vince Coleman. Gordon earned his first All-Star berth last season, and that hot start lingered long enough in voters’ minds to earn him a 25th-place NL MVP finish.


(GIF via @corkgaines)

After that 28-game stretch, though, Gordon batted a respectable .274 the rest of the way … but with a mediocre .313 on-base percentage and .358 slugging average. His career line through 329 games and 1,319 plate appearances is a nearly identical .272/.314/.345, and in the minors he showed very little power, a questionable batting eye, and overall numbers that look weak after adjusting for some terrific hitters’ parks.

Gordon is still just 26 years old, is spectacularly fast (he led baseball last season with 64 swipes), and offers four years of team control.1 But he’s also never been a particularly good hitter, his defense grades poorly with the advanced metrics, his brilliant start to 2014 looks like a fluke compared to the rest of his résumé, and the Dodgers might’ve sold him at exactly the right time. Take a look at the 2015 projections from Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system:

Hernandez, a 23-year-old infielder who was acquired as a minor piece of the Gordon trade and who already looks like a bench guy now that the Dodgers have Rollins and Kendrick, is projected to be slightly better next season than Gordon is. Gordon is a fun guy to watch, but comparing his projections to, say, Emilio Bonifacio’s should help assure Dodgers fans that they might not be giving up all that much.

Getting Kendrick Is Huge, But Losing Heaney Could Be Too

Kendrick is one of the best second basemen in baseball, and he’ll make the Dodgers significantly better in 2015. The 31-year-old’s power numbers dipped last season, but he still hit .293/.347/.397, making him 15 percent better than the league-average hitter after adjusting for park effects. He’s also a right-handed hitter, which should help soften the blow of losing Kemp and Hanley Ramirez. Kendrick is also a significantly better defender than Gordon was, and the Kendrick-Rollins infield combo could save something like 20 more runs than the shaky Gordon-Ramirez pairing did last year, which would be a boon for every Dodgers pitcher, from the mighty Kershaw to the lowliest middle reliever.

Kendrick is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, so the Dodgers will get to choose between offering him a long-term deal to lock him up into his mid-thirties or making him a qualifying offer and then collecting a high draft pick once he signs elsewhere. Those are both good options.

To get Kendrick, of course, the Dodgers had to give up Heaney, whom they possessed for a nanosecond before flipping him to the Angels. Though Kendrick should be a big gain, Heaney could prove to be an even bigger loss, as he has a chance to be good … really good. Heaney, the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, has pitched exceptionally well in the minor leagues, tossing 259.2 innings, striking out 262 batters, walking 68, and allowing just 228 hits and 15 home runs. He’s a 6-2 lefty who deals in the mid-90s (up to 97 mph), with an excellent slider that he uses as a strikeout pitch and a changeup that he deploys against right-handed hitters. He’s been durable. He was voted the Marlins’ top prospect by Baseball America last year and the no. 30 prospect in all of baseball by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus heading into 2014. He struggled in a 29.1-inning major league audition last season, but scouts remain very bullish, and Heaney also offers six years of club control, with the first three at league-minimum salary.

The days of teams trading a guy like Mark Teixeira for an armada of premium prospects are all but over, with clubs rarely giving up guys of Heaney’s caliber anymore, which makes the Dodgers’ acquisition, and the Angels’ subsequent pickup, a coup in and of itself.

Rollins Is an Ideal Stopgap

Like Kendrick, Rollins offers the Dodgers only one year of guaranteed team control. But in this case, the lone year is a feature rather than a bug, since L.A. has 20-year-old top shortstop prospect Corey Seager not far from the Show.2 After a significant down year in 2013, Rollins bounced back in 2014, batting .243/.323/.394 (2 percent better than league average by wRC+) while swatting 17 homers and stealing 28 bags. He also played defense that advanced metrics rated as well above average.

With the free-agent market for shortstops down to Stephen Drew, 58-year-old Garry Templeton, and a ball of twine, and the trade market requiring giving the Rockies everything between Mission Viejo and Santa Barbara for Troy Tulowitzki, landing Rollins to replace Ramirez was a nifty little stopgap move.

McCarthy Is the Big Risk

McCarthy is the riskiest of all the moves, considering the length of his contract and his past health concerns. The 31-year-old right-hander tossed 200 innings in 2014, but it was the first time he’d accomplished that feat, and just the second time he’d thrown more than 135 innings in a season. He has, however, been very good when healthy:

The only question is whether McCarthy can carry the load for a full season and remain strong in October, when the Dodgers obviously hope to still be playing. McCarthy told FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris that he spent last winter bulking up in the weight room, and he later attributed his increased endurance in part to those efforts. (He also tweaked the mix of fastballs he throws and added more curves to his repertoire.)

If we assume the terms of this deal are something like $12 million a season over the four years, then 175-plus innings of better-than-average pitching for the duration of the contract would be well worth the price given the deals being handed out elsewhere. For now, though, that remains a big if.

So What’s Next?

james-shields-royals-mlb-playoffs-triJamie Squire/Getty Images

Amazingly, the rumor mill hasn’t quieted following this frenzy, and the Dodgers could still make additional moves. With Kemp gone, there’s talk of parlaying the money saved into a different big-ticket player, possibly James Shields or another pitcher if the Dodgers decide to go for a mega-power rotation. Not all analysts believe L.A. will make another headline-grabbing move, but given Kershaw’s seventh-inning meltdowns in the playoffs and the Dodgers’ lack of bullpen depth, some relief moves seem inevitable at a minimum.

Of course, that’s guesswork. What we can say for certain is that the Dodgers now have one of the better double-play combinations in the NL; they dumped a contract that could have been an albatross for them over the next five years and got real talent in return; they kept all of their key prospects and added minor league depth in the Kemp and Gordon trades that they could use to make other moves; and they have the money, the flexibility, and (clearly!) the will to keep upgrading as opportunities present themselves.

The McCarthy deal could end up biting them in the ass, and trading six years of Heaney for one year of Kendrick could too. But Dodgers fans woke up Thursday morning to find a team that had made multiple improvements for 2015, gotten younger and cheaper for the long run, and is now well positioned to make at least one more meaningful move this winter.

The Frank McCourt–era Dodgers are dead and buried. And the new regime just shoved its chips into the middle of the table.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Winter Meetings, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Trades, MLB Free Agency, MLB Free Agents, MLB Contracts, Money Matters, MLB Stats, Los Angeles Dodgers, Andrew Friedman, Matt Kemp, Yasmani Grandal, San Diego Padres, Dee Gordon, Miami Marlins, Dan Haren, Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Angels, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies, Brandon McCarthy, NL West, Baseball, Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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