Kemp impresses with leaner physique, then power-hitting display

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It wasn’t just that Matt Kemp shed some pounds during the offseason, it was that the Braves slugger redistributed, if you will, other pounds he retained.

His waist, midsection and backside are slimmer, and his arms and chest are massive.

“He looks great,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “The first time I saw him I said, you look like you did when you played center field for the Dodgers, from what I remember. He’s in great shape. That’s really good. He’s a big man. And we saw what he can do for a club, what he did for us. That (improved condition) is very encouraging.”

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, “He looks great. We saw when he came here — I think he hit 12 or 14 homers — and we’re going to have that for a full year. It’s going to be very nice seeing him hit behind me a lot.”

Kemp said he’s excited because the Braves improved during the offseason and he believes they’re in position to compete now, not just continue to rebuild. As for his offseason regimen, he didn’t offer details.

“Worked out and got ready for the season,” he said, adding that he spent his offseason in Texas, Florida and his native Oklahoma. “Everybody’s excited to be back. We’ve been away from each other for a long time, so it’s exciting to see all the guys and get back and get to work.”

Kemp was overweight when traded to the Braves last summer, but the former All-Star still excelled at the plate, hitting .280 with 12 homers, 39 RBIs and a robust .519 slugging percentage in 56 games. His production and presence in the cleanup spot behind Freeman and in front of Nick Markakis took an already-improving offense to a whole new level.

“Things really turned around for our offense when he got stuck in the middle of the order,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “To summarize it best, when we went in to play the Marlins in September, (Miami manager) Don Mattingly said that we had as good a 3-4-5 (hitters as there were) in baseball. That, to me, spoke volumes, just because the respect that the other dugout has to have for the middle of our order, and then it takes all the pressure off the rest of the order.”

The extra weight affected Kemp in the field, however. He looked nothing like the Gold Glove center fielder he’d been for the Dodgers in 2009 and again in 2011, when he was the National League MVP runner-up after hitting .324 with 39 homers, 126 RBIs and 40 stolen bases.

“This dude was a big-time center fielder at one point,” Seitzer said. “Now he looks physically similar to what he did then. I saw his body when he came in camp and I’m like, oh my gosh, it looks like that guy. And he’s strong, too.”

Kemp struggled to get to some fly balls in his first games in left field for the Braves. And even though he made most of the plays as the season wore on, there were some adventures.

“Obviously he heard the rumblings (about his weight),” Freeman said, “and he worked hard (over the winter), and it’s only going to pay off for him and for us. He’s going to be out there. He was getting defensively replaced a few times at the end. I think he just didn’t want that to happen anymore. It’s only going to benefit us, because you never know what can happen in the eighth and ninth inning if you get taken out, if you get your four-hole hitter taken out. Now he’s going to be in there the whole game. It’s just a bigger boost for us.”

Kemp never wanted out of the lineup and fit seamlessly into the clubhouse while providing even more of an offensive boost than the Braves expected when they got him. Now that he’s in better shape, and the Braves think the 32-year-old has a better chance to avoid injuries — he was slowed by several leg injuries before last season — and refresh his defense.

As for his bat, the towering home runs he hit off and over a 60-foot scoreboard wall at Champion Stadium in Thursday morning batting practice were evidence that he still has tremendous power.

“Mind-boggling,” Braves rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson said of that display. “He’s unreal. Even last year, you just see balls he hits and you’re kind of in amazement at some things that he does. He looks great. He’s awesome. Glad to have him back, and I know everybody else is too.”

Kemp finished with a .268 average, 35 homers, a career-high 39 doubles and 108 RBIs in 156 games for the Padres and Braves.

“Matt is a veteran player; he played great for us,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “Matt said when he went home for the offseason that he was going to come back in better shape. He looks great. Matt has done everything right since he’s been here. We’re very fortunate to have him here with the Atlanta Braves.”

Snitker said, “If you ask him, he probably feels better (slimmer) like this. He had a little taste of (playing in Atlanta heat) and he might have thought, I probably have to do something to get through. And he’d probably be the first to tell you he needed to do something, and he did. I applaud him. It’s not easy to do. It’s remarkable to me, the dedication that it takes to achieve that goal, and he did. He looks great. It’s funny, Seitz came in this morning and said, ‘you don’t have to worry about him losing any strength because he’s hitting balls up there where (Andres) Galarraga used to him them.’”