LOS ANGELES -- His emotions taking over as he spoke to an enthusiastic group of Dodgers fans crowding around the stage at the team’s FanFest a few months ago, Matt Kemp promised, “I’m a beast still.”
If Dodgers fans are a bit skeptical given what they’ve seen from Kemp these past two seasons, they presumably are more than happy to welcome back the player who, while putting up one of the greatest seasons in franchise history three years ago, labeled it “Beast Mode.”
Is the Beast back, or at least on the verge of being back? Physically, yes. Kemp probably will come off the disabled list and be in the starting lineup and play center field at Friday’s Dodger Stadium opener against the San Francisco Giants, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly confirmed Wednesday night.
Kemp underwent ankle surgery last October and spent two weeks working his way back in minor league games.
It has been two years since Kemp gave anyone a genuine display of his rare mix of talents -- the massive, all-fields power, the speed and athletic ability, the all-or-nothing play in center field. Injuries -- and Kemp’s have been spread out all over his body -- have a way of diminishing players over time. But the game is also filled with players who eventually recovered from whatever was limiting them and resumed superstar-caliber careers. Hanley Ramirez is among them.
So, here Kemp is, at a crossroads. Naturally, he has some anxiety as he picks up, he hopes, where he left off in April of 2012. The plan, if all goes well, is to make everybody forget the rest of that season and the one that followed.
And Kemp isn’t going at this thing bashfully. He showed up at spring training and immediately proclaimed, “I’m not a fourth outfielder,” saying he wouldn’t accept a part-time role.
“I know everyone wants to play every day, but I won’t accept that role,” Kemp said. “I can’t accept that role.”
Kemp has impressed everyone who saw him this spring in batting practice. His shoulder -- twice surgically repaired -- has proved supple and strong enough to allow him to finish his swing high, the swing that gives him such prodigious center-field power. The people he didn’t impress, particularly, were the minor league pitchers he faced. Kemp batted .113 in 53 at-bats playing in minor league spring training games.
These numbers, of course, will prove meaningless over time. Kemp’s primary focus was testing his ankle, first by hitting, then by running the bases and, finally, by sliding. He says he checked off every box and told Mattingly he was ready.
The Dodgers could have waited for his production to catch up to how he felt, but they trusted his assessment.
“He’s been rehabbing all spring. He’s had all kinds of at-bats,” Mattingly said. “At some point, you’ve got to start. You just can’t continue to wait until he’s hot in the minor leagues and say, ‘He’s ready,’ and it still may not matter. He’s physically ready and he’s had all the at-bats. We’ve got to go. It’s time.”
But will Kemp test the fans’ patience at first? Will he test Mattingly’s patience? Remember, he hasn’t had consistent major league at-bats in 18 months. He might not come out and immediately enter Beast Mode. In fact, it would be surprising if he did.
“Just be patient with him. Give him some time to get used to the speed of the game,” Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire said. “It doesn’t matter how many at-bats you have in minor league games, simulated games. It’s just a different game up here. He’s got such a track record, too, and he’s going to have to be patient with it.”
McGwire relates it to his own career. He barely played in 1993 and 1994 because of debilitating foot injuries. When he returned, the game literally looked different to him. McGwire squinted in the at-bats of his prime years, following the injury-ravaged ones.
“The thing psychologically for me was to not go out of your strike zone,” McGwire said. “You’ve even got to make your strike zone smaller and allow your vision to get down narrow. Your vision gets so broad, the concentration level gets to where it’s kind of spacey. You have to narrow it to bring the vision down.”
An ironman in his early years, Kemp’s number of games played and production have slipped each of the past two seasons. In 2011, he may have been the best player in the game, though MVP voters gave the nod to Ryan Braun, who was later tainted by PEDs. The next season, hamstring injuries hit and he missed 56 games, his OPS declining from .986 to a still-robust .906. Last season, he played only 73 games, his power sapped by a left shoulder weakened by surgery. He had hamstring problems and, finally, the serious ankle injury. His OPS was a career low .723.
So, here he is, trying to start over.
“One thing about rehabbing is you’ve got to stay positive and I’ve always stayed positive,” Kemp said. “And if I start out slow, it is what it is. It’s baseball. In baseball you have 162 games, but that’s not the plan. The plan is to come out and help the team win in whatever way possible.”