LOS ANGELES -- "It’s always fluid."
That was the text message I got from Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti after Tuesday night’s 6-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. I spent time before the game talking to Colletti about Matt Kemp’s five-game benching and what it meant for the dynamics of the team, both logistically and psychologically.
Within a couple of hours, Carl Crawford was limping around left field after badly spraining his left ankle. A little while later, he would say he’s going on the 15-day disabled list, and all the questions about Kemp being the odd man out were borderline moot. So, presuming the Dodgers don’t plan on using longtime minor leaguer Scott Van Slyke every day, the only question left concerns how Kemp responds to being asked to do something new.
The Dodgers know how they’d like him to respond. They’d like him to respond like Andre Ethier did.
See, before this ever became about Kemp, it was –- far more quietly -– about Ethier. The two longest-tenured Dodgers position players are, like Crawford and Yasiel Puig, locked in this uncomfortable four-outfielder jam-up, but for a big chunk of this season, Ethier was the guy on the outside of the lineup looking in.
From May 12 to May 22, Ethier started a grand total of two games.
“It’s uncomfortable, but guys just have to figure out a way to get it done,” Ethier said.
That’s about all Kemp can really do at this point, figure out how to play left field for the first time in eight years, figure out how to catch the ball more reliably than he did for the first two months, figure out how to cut down on his strikeouts, figure out how to get on base more frequently. It’s not about how the team is treating him. It’s about how he treats this opportunity.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he’s ready to play Kemp in left field the minute Kemp tells him he’s ready to play left field.
By the looks of it, Ethier stayed ready. He was batting .262 with a .361 slugging percentage when the Dodgers finally decided they had seen enough of Kemp’s sloppy play in center field and inserted him into the everyday lineup. On Tuesday, he mashed a home run and three-run triple in his first two at-bats and, since he got back on the field every day, he’s batting .368 with five extra-base hits.
Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire chatted with Ethier in Washington early this month about his swing.
“We felt he was pushing the ball a little too much instead of dropping the head on it and getting the hammer going,” Mattingly said. “To me, he’s continued to work. Him and Carl both got after it pretty good, fighting for those at-bats. But Andre was playing the least. I just said, ‘Be patient. You never know what’s going to happen.’ He said, ‘It’s a long season.’ He knew the opportunity would come.”
For Kemp to do anything but hold his tongue and play his best, even if it’s awkward at first in a new position, would be a monumentally selfish act and everyone in baseball would view it as just that. The Dodgers, for nearly two months a disappointment, are just now beginning to get a head of steam, having won six of eight games behind absolutely dominant starting pitching.
This isn’t the time for complaints. Those can wait until there’s nothing left to play for.