PHOENIX — Frost still covered the grass at Camelback Ranch when Matt Kemp met with Los Angeles Dodgers first base coach George Lombard this week. Kemp had asked Lombard to help prepare him for the coming season, so at 7:45 a.m. Lombard chopped ground balls toward a two-time All-Star attempting an improbable revival with the Dodgers.
“He’s here to work,” Lombard said. “He looks good. He’s working hard. It’s pretty cool to go out there and see him have a pretty good first game.”
The surreal homecoming of Kemp took another step toward reality Friday. He wore a Dodgers uniform in a game, a 13-5 victory over the Chicago White Sox in a Cactus League opener. Kemp notched two hits, including a three-run home run. Yet as the Dodgers have made clear since acquiring him in December, Kemp’s defense will determine whether the organization feels comfortable using him in the outfield.
Kemp started in left field and received only one fielding opportunity catching a wind-whipped fly ball in the second inning.
“I caught my first fly ball today,” Kemp said. “So we’re doing good. For sure. Getting early work in, everything feels good. Being in shape and feeling good, it’s going to make playing defense a little bit easier.”
The Dodgers attempted to trade Kemp throughout the winter. They did not find a robust market for a 33-year-old outfielder considered one of the least useful fielders in baseball and owed $43 million over the next two seasons. Kemp has responded to the challenge, arriving at camp about 40 pounds lighter than he was last season in Atlanta. “He’s in fantastic shape,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The Dodgers intend to carry a 13-man pitching staff, with five starters and eight relievers. That leaves four openings on the bench. One will be occupied by a backup catcher. Two others appear ticketed to utility man Enrique Hernandez and veteran second baseman Chase Utley.
Kemp resides near the top of the list for the last spot. The Dodgers are unlikely to carry Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles, both left-handed hitters. The team can send either player to the minors. Trayce Thompson, a right-handed hitting outfielder, is out of options, but batted .122 last season. Top prospect Alex Verdugo is probably bound for triple-A Oklahoma City.
So Kemp, in theory, could split time with either Pederson or Toles in left field. The Dodgers need to see evidence of improvement in his fielding. He ranked 205th in Ultimate Zone Rating among the 208 outfielders who played at least 100 innings in 2017, according to FanGraphs.
Lombard studied video of Kemp with Atlanta. Kemp looked much heavier, which compromised his fielding, Lombard explained.
“If you get to that weight, you’re not going to have confidence to go after balls the way you want to go after them,” Lombard said. “You’re going to pull up short. You see some balls where you’re like ‘He’s on it, he’s on it,’ gets the jump — and then he pulls up at the last minute.”
Kemp acknowledged that hitting would not guarantee him a spot on the roster. But he still enjoyed his homer, a rocket launched against Tyler Danish, a right-handed pitcher with four big league appearances.
“I got a pretty warm welcome,” Kemp said. “It was better than the Dodgers fans booing me when I was on the other side.”
Puig’s cleats drama
The list of slightly injured Dodgers grows by the day.
Catcher Austin Barnes has a sore elbow but has been allowed to throw. Pitcher Alex Wood has a sprained ankle but has been cleared to pitch.
The latest medical malady involves outfielder Yasiel Puig, who was scratched Friday because of discomfort in his hip, Roberts said. Puig did not play, but the team permitted him to participate without restriction in a pregame workout.
The cause of Puig’s condition?
“He had a different pair of shoes that he was breaking in; didn’t put his orthotics in,” Roberts said. “So there’s a little bit of discomfort. So for me, it was an easy (decision). Give him another day to adjust. And he’ll be in there tomorrow.”
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