Mixed messages on Matt Kemp's health

LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp paused to speak with reporters Saturday at FanFest, offering a few generalities about the state of his body and saying he wouldn’t risk returning too soon from his injuries, a mistake he now admits he made in 2013.

He saved his most heartfelt comments on the matter for the thousands of fans milling about the main stage.

“I’m not made of glass,” Kemp told them. “I’m a beast still.”

If that’s the case, the Dodgers could have a ferocious lineup, but there are a lot of hurdles to clear in the meantime. Foremost is this: Kemp said he hasn’t begun to run yet despite the fact he is more than three months removed from left ankle surgery.

He has kept his conditioning up by working out on an antigravity treadmill, but hasn’t tested it by running the bases or shagging fly balls. Given that the Dodgers’ first game is six and a half weeks off, Opening Day in Australia appears an unlikely target for Kemp’s return. Perhaps their U.S. opener, March 30, is a possibility?

“I’m going to be on my own program for the moment. I’m not rushing back,” Kemp said. “I want to be 100 percent. When I’m 100 percent, that’s when I’ll start playing.”

That sounded a bit ominous, but there was good news. Kemp said his shoulder feels significantly better than it did at this time last year, which is an encouraging sign that his power could be on the mend. Kemp led the league with 39 home runs in 2011, but had just one home run through the first month and a half last season coming off his first round of shoulder surgery.

Kemp had another, smaller-scale procedure this winter. Unlike one year ago, Kemp’s batting practice and weightlifting have begun well ahead of spring training. He’s expected to report along with pitchers, catchers and other injured players to Camelback Ranch on Saturday, the first day of the Dodgers’ spring training.

It’s anybody’s guess what the Dodgers will get out of Kemp. Reviving his near-Triple Crown form of 2011 seems a bit much to ask given the punishment his body has taken the past two seasons. But it also seems likely that greater strength in his shoulder should boost his power sufficiently to improve on last season’s .723 OPS, the lowest of his career.

One projection system, ZiPS, pegs Kemp to hit .274 with 21 doubles, 20 home runs and 75 RBIs, to steal 15 bags and to make 475 plate appearances. The Dodgers would probably take those numbers. Of course, like their fans, they’re always hoping for more.