Kemp is raking, but Braves better off for making trade

Teammates wait for Charlie Culberson to cross home plate on one of his two walk-off homers last week. (AP photo)
Teammates wait for Charlie Culberson to cross home plate on one of his two walk-off homers last week. (AP photo)

Think about this: Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis, who hit third through fifth in the Braves’ lineup in 2017 when Freeman and Kemp were healthy, are now ranked first (Kemp .349), third (Freeman .338) and fourth (Markakis .328) in the National League batting race, and second (Freeman .993), third (Kemp .968) and eighth (Markakis (.890) in the league’s OPS rankings.

That’s pretty impressive.

Now think about this: I say the Braves, who face Kemp’s Dodgers in a three-game series beginning Friday night at Dodger Stadium, are better off now without the NL batting leader. Yes, they are better off without Kemp, who at 33 is having his best season since 2011, when he was the league MVP runner-up (to Ryan Braun) and should’ve won the award after batting .324 with a .986 OPS, 40 stolen bases and league-leading totals of 39 homers and 126 RBIs.

Oh, believe me, I could practically hear through the keyboard as I typed that. The response from some of you, along the lines of: “Say what?” Or, “You’re a (bleeping) idiot.”

Nevertheless, on this matter I’m right.

If it sounds counterintuitive that any team would be better off without the league leader in batting average and slugging percentage -- Kemp is slugging .589 -- then allow me to explain, and please don’t dismiss it right away by saying you know what I’m going to type.

First, the financial part of the deal, and it’s appropriate that it be discussed first since that was the impetus for the complicated five-player trade, from both teams’ perspective.

To boil it down, the Braves basically traded Kemp and the approximate $40 million they owed him over the 2018 and 2019 seasons to the Dodgers in exchange for taking on four Dodgers and about $50 million in total salary for 2018: pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir, both in final year of their contracts in 2018 and owed just over $28 million combined; utility man Charlie Culberson, still a year away from arbitration and with three more seasons of contractual control after 2018; and aging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a five-time former All-Star who agreed to waive his no-trade clause to allow the deal to go through only under the condition that the Braves immediately DFA him and make him a free agent.

He made that demand -- and the Braves agreed to the condition -- so that he could sign with a team where he would have a chance to play in this, the final year of his contract. (Gonzalez signed with the Mets, who had to pay him only the major league minimum while he Braves are paying about $21.8 million of his 2018 salary.)

The Braves and GM Alex Anthopoulos, who came to the Braves in November from the Dodgers, made it clear at the time of the Kemp trade that the Braves were never counting on anything from Kazmir, who missed all of 2017 with injuries. He was dumped before the end of spring training and no other team has signed him. The Braves are paying his $17 million salary. Again, they knew this likely would be the way it would go with Kazmir when they agreed to take on his salary.

The Braves made the trade because, while it meant taking on about $30 million more in salary for 2018 than if they had kept Kemp, what it did was allow them to clear out the nearly $20 million they would owe him next season, adding to the considerable funds they would have available for the offseason when they planned (and still do) to make their first big splash in years in the free-agent and/or trade market. Plus, the Dodgers gave him cash to balance out the two-year payout.

At the same time, the deal allowed the Braves to bring aboard a veteran starter, McCarthy, who’s a hard worker, steady performer and innings-eater when healthy, which Anthopolous believed he could be after seeing him return from the DL late last season with the Dodgers, and which he thought could be crucial for a young staff. The deal also brought them a strong, versatile defender in Culberson, who could be a steady backup shortstop, play a variety of other positions when needed, and make an impact in the Braves clubhouse – his reputation as a teammate is beyond reproach, as we’ll discuss shortly – who’d be under contractual control four seasons.

The Dodgers did the trade not because they wanted Kemp back; in fact, most in the industry were certain the Dodgers would trade or perhaps even release Kemp before the season, given that he played only 115 games becasue of injuries in 2017 and finished the season grossly overweight, with a .276/.318/.473 slash line and as the league leader in double plays grounded into with 25 -- one behind major league leader Albert Pujols, who had 155 more at-bats than Kemp in 2017.

They did the trade because shedding the approximate $50 million from their 2018 payroll, while adding the two years of what they would owe Kemp, plus the cash they sent the Braves as part of the deal to even it all out, would keep the Dodgers’ payroll under the luxury-tax limit for 2018, saving them many million in taxes.

But the Dodgers got an added bonus: Kemp defied skeptics by reporting to spring training some 40 pounds lighter than he was at the end of 2017. It was an even more startling transformation than he made between the end of the 2016 season – the Braves traded him for him July 30, 2016, and he was overweight when he came from San Diego in that deal – and the start of 2017 spring training.

But we saw how quickly Kemp expanded after injuring his hamstring early in the 2017 season, an injury that was recurring throughout the season. His weight ballooned once he went on the DL, and many observers figured the same thing would happen this season, that he wouldn’t be able to stay healthy – hamstring injuries can become chronic with players as they age – and that he would gain weight again if and when he got hurt.

Well, so far we were all wrong. Very wrong.

And most of those in Dodgerland who thought Kemp would be dealt before spring training or at least before opening day are all understandably pleased now that he wasn’t. Because he’s been the most pleasant surprise on a Dodgers team that’s mostly underperformed, the reigning NL champions currently at 31-31, tied with the Giants for third place in the West Division, abeit only 1-1/2 games behind first-place Arizona.

Kemp shows no signs of fading. To the contrary, he’s getting only hotter at the plate, batting .433 with 14 extra-base hits and a .791 slugging percentage in his past 20 games, including four homers and 14 RBIs in his past eight games with four- and five-RBI games in that span.

But like I said, the Braves are still better off without him.

I’d venture to say that anyone in the clubhouse would know what I’m talking about without me even explaining it. But here we go:

First, the Braves needed to open a spot for Ronald Acuna, their 20-year-old phenom outfielder who showed late last season that he was ready for the majors, or at least real damn close. It was either trade Kemp or Nick Markakis, their veteran right fielder who doesn’t have Kemp’s power, but also doesn’t have his history of nagging injuries (December 2014 neck surgery nothwithstanding, Markakis plays virtually every inning of every game).

And to say they have different clubhouse reputations would qualify as one of the bigger understatements of the summer.

Kemp is loud, brash and can be quite engaging and funny. But he can also be a bit cranky and disruptive if things aren’t going well for him.

Braves officials would never say it publicly, but on a team with so many young and impressionable players who figure to be a big part of the team’s future for years to come, they did not want the potential bad example of Kemp in the clubhouse. They didn’t want one of their two highest-paid players setting an example for young players that was, well, not exactly the way you want them thinking is the proper way to comport oneself or to prepare for a game or get through the grind of a season.

Kemp is an extremely talented player, has been a superstar and is playing like a star again this season. But that doesn’t mean you want young players modeling themselves after him, and I’ll leave it at that.

Being a great teammate, being a steady performer who blends well with every others on the team, not drawing attention to oneself but rather putting the team first – these are the kinds of examples the Braves and most other teams would prefer to have set for young players. And at a time when the Braves’ clubhouse is lined with so many in their early 20s, and not just players but potential stars, it could be argued that no team had more at stake in having the right veterans to set the tone.

The Braves have the right veterans in Markakis, Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Flowers and others. In McCarthy, they added a guy who’s not the most outgoing, but who is a tireless worker and perfectionist, with an approach and professionalism the Braves want their younger pitchers to notice. And when they ask questions, he’s been more than willing to share insight and advice.

And here’s what gets overlooked: While McCarthy has an unimpressive 4.83 ERA and .302 opponents’ average in 12 starts heading into Friday’s start against the Dodgers – yes, he’s starting the series opener against his former team -- the Braves have won seven of those 12 games he pitched, and he allowed three earned runs or fewer in nine and pitched at least five innings in all but one start. Not sensational, but steady.

And also important is the fact that if he didn’t make those 12 starts, the Braves with their modest payroll would’ve ended up relying on the likes of Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims to make them.

And how many more times would an already-taxed bullpen have had to cover five or six innings in a game if that had been the case? Given what $11.5 million will get you in a starting pitcher on today’s free-agent market, McCarthy, who’s already pitched 63-1/3 innings in the Braves’ first 62 games, has been an asset.

And Culberson? Well, let’s just say when Culberson hit two walk-off home runs in one homestand last week, every person – every single person – in the clubhouse was at least as overjoyed as he was. He’s that popular among teammates and the staff.

“He’s the best,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said of Culberson. “I feel like we have a lot of guys like that, and he’s definitely one of the top ones, for sure. I mean, he’s awesome. You can’t say enough good things about him, and he definitely makes us better, for sure.”

The Braves all love this guy, who has a rare ability to connect with players of varying ages and cultural backgrounds. Look at a still photo of Culberson as he approaches home plate following one of his walk-off homers last week. The look on the faces of other Braves says it all, ecstatic not just over the win but for the guy who got the walk-off homer.

“You just want to give him a hug,” veteran reliever Peter Moylan said. “He’s got a flair for the dramatic, which is what you want on your team.”

Moylan then described the positive impact that McCarthy and Culberson, two guys with very different personalities, have had on the Braves.

“You look at Brandon, he’s been through a lot and made it back, and he’s throwing the ball as well as I think he has in the last few years,” Moylan said. “He’s a great leader-by-example guy, by the way he works. And if you listen to him talk he’s obviously full of knowledge; if you can get him to talk, he’s full of knowledge. I think a lot of the young guys will feed off of that.

“Charlie, he’s just the ultimate teammate. It’s hard not to root for the guy. He’s such a great guy in here; he’s a gamer out there; he throws everything into it. But yeah, as far as a teammate, he’s up there (near the top). You know. He’s got kids. He’s a huge family man. He loves his family. His priority is his family, but he also comes in here with the right attitude, and that’s sometimes hard to do when you don’t play that much. You can get frustrated. But he never shows any frustration, he’s always where he needs to be at the right time. ...

“It’s easy for me because I’ve seen how the other world lives. I had to work for a living (when Moylan was out of baseball for several years), and I know how lucky I am to be able to come to a baseball field every day. And I’m sure he feels the same way. It’s something that we can’t take for granted.”

Swanson, a No. 1 overall draft pick and erstwhile golden-boy prospect, has a lot more in common than you might think with Culberson, who toiled in the minors for more than six years before getting his first extended playing time with the Rockies in 2014. Swanson is in his second full season and has had some highs and lows, including a brief demotion to Triple-A last summer and a nagging wrist injury this season.

“Charlie’s a phenomenal guy to talk things through with, just be able to bounce things off, a guy you can have a real genuine, open conversation with, about more than just baseball,” Swanson said. “You can talk about baseball, you can talk about life, you can talk about whatever with him. And especially in this team, you need that. You need people like that. This game can eat you up if you let it, and so being able to get things away from that is great. Brandon is the same way, provides a sense of humor and the whole thing. It’d definitely a plus to be able to have them around here, for sure.”

Seldom will you find a player with such an average slash line (Culberson is at .262/.311/.429) who has had such a positive impact on a team. McCarthy saw it when Culberson was with the Dodgers, where he also had a penchant for big hits and for getting along with everyone and helping to make the entire clubhouse better.

“His personality is his personality, Charlie’s just a good dude,” said McCarthy, who would be the first to tell you that he, like most of us, doesn’t have Culberson’s gift of making everyone not just like him but love him.

McCarthy has said on more than one occasion how much he’s thoroughly enjoyed being around this group of Braves and how special is their chemistry.

“That’s just sort of a function of this whole clubhouse. There aren’t standouts,” McCarthy said, and by standouts he meant individuals whose personalities overshadow others or don’t mesh well with the group. “It’s a fairly rare thing. Like when you go in and everybody hates this guy or doesn’t hate this guy – there’s usually groups and cliques. Here, it’s just kind of one seamless group, which I think helps explain to a certain degree some of our playing.

“As young as we are, with the mix of guys as old as we are, in this middle section there should be some different groups forming, but that hasn’t taken hold. Guys like me and Charlie understand -- we’ve been in enough clubhouses that you understand -- this is right, this is wrong. It’s how you fit in. It’s not too complicated. It’s easier for (Culberson) than it is for me, which is to just try not to be a complete (expletive) and people should hopefully accept you.”

McCarthy, known for his dry humor, said that last line with barely the hint of a smile. But the message was clear. And they do seem to have accepted him, for sure.

A team will use most or all of its 40-man roster during the course of a season, as well as plenty of others added along the way. That two guys the Braves got in the Kemp trade have not just a non-detrimental impact, but on balance a hugely positive one, is a big reason they came out better for making the deal.

“I think that’s really been one of the biggest impacts, having Brandon and Charlie here,” Swanson said. “One a veteran position player and one a veteran pitcher. How they’ve kind of – I don’t know if take people under their wing is the right word, but just definitely create some more unity. Really added value to just the personality and the togetherness in here.”

*Let's close with this great L.A. tune from A Tribe Called Quest.


My mother went away for a month-long trip
Her and some friends on an ocean-liner ship
She made a big mistake by leaving me home
I had to roam so I picked up the phone
Dialed Ali up to see what was going down
Told him I pick him up so we could drive around
Took the Dodge Dart, a '74
My mother left a yard but I needed one more
Shaheed had me covered with a hundred greenbacks
So we left Brooklyn and we made big tracks
drove down the Belt, got on the Conduit
Came to a toll, we paid and went through it
Had no destination, we was on a quest
Ali laid in the back so he could get rest
Drove down the road for two-days-and-a-half
The sun had just risen on a dusty path
Just then a figure had caught my eye
A man with a sombrero who was four feet high
I pulled over to ask were we was at
His index finger he tipped up his hat
"El Segundo," he said, "my name is Pedro
If you need directions, I'll tell you pronto"
Needed civilization, some sort of reservation
He said a mile south, there's a fast food station
Thanks, senor, as I start up the motor
Ali said, "Damn, Tip, why you drive so far for?"

(Well describe to me what the wallet looks like)

Anyway a gas station we passed
We got gas and went on to get grub
It was a nice little pub in the middle of nowhere
Anywhere would have been better
I ordered enchiladas and I ate 'em
Ali had the fruit punch
When we finished we thought for ways to get back
I had a hunch
Ali said, "Pay for lunch"
So I did it
Pulled out the wallet and I saw this wicked beautiful lady
She was a waitress there
Put the wallet down and stared and stared
To put me back into reality, here's Shaheed:
"Yo, Tip, man, you got what you need?"
I checked for keys and started to step 
What do you know, my wallet I forget

Yo, it was a brown wallet, it had props numbers 
Had my jimmy hats I got to get it man

Lord, have mercy
The heat got hotter, Ali stars to curse me
I fell bad but he makes me feel badder
Chit-chit-chatter, car stars to scatter
Breaking on out, we was Northeast bound
Jettin' on down at the speed of sound
Three days coming and three more going
We get back and there was no slack
490 Madison, we're here, Sha
He said, "All right, Tip, see you tomorrow"
Thinking about the past week, the last week
Hands go in my pocket, I can't speak
Hopped in the car and torpe'ed to the shack
Of Shaheed, "We gotta go back" when he said
"Why?" I said, "We gotta go
'Cause I left my wallet in El Segundo"

Yeah, I left my wallet in El Segundo
Left my wallet in El Segundo
Left my wallet in El Segundo
I gotta get, I got-got ta get it

About the Author

In Other News