At ease, Kemp reclaims elite status
Distractions aside, outfielder enjoys remarkable season
LOS ANGELES -- The photo opp Friday was Matt Kemp signing a record-breaking eight-year, $160 million contract extension, ironically at the same Dodger Stadium Club podium where Joe Torre stepped aside a year ago saying the Dodgers needed a "younger" voice as manager because he couldn't get the best out of players like Kemp.
"Donnie [Mattingly] told me that the way Matty's gone about his job day to day, he's a different guy this year," Torre said this week. "Sometimes to be good, a player has to get slapped around a little bit. But Matty endured. He never backed off and I'm proud of him."
After thanking just about everybody whose path he ever crossed during a celebratory press conference that included owner Frank McCourt, general manager Ned Colletti and agent Dave Stewart, Kemp conceded that the promotion of Mattingly and the arrival of coaches Davey Lopes and Tim Wallach created for him a comfort level in which to thrive.
"They are all positive people," Kemp said. "They want to see us get better. It's now stress free and other clubhouses here haven't been."
So Kemp rebounded from 2010 -- from the tabloid coverage of his relationship with Rihanna, criticism from Colletti, run-ins with coaches, a benching by Torre and bad baserunning -- and unleashed one of the great all-around seasons in recent history.
He made a run at the Triple Crown, fell a home run shy of 40/40, snagged a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and has only Ryan Braun in his way for an MVP Award to be announced Tuesday. He's now considered among the elite of the game, fulfilling the dreams he had when his heroes were Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr.
"At the beginning I dreamed of being in the NBA, but mom and dad made me stick with baseball, I got drafted and here I am now, living the dream," he said.
Kemp said he was humbled by the Dodgers awarding him the largest contract in National League history, which also eclipsed by $55 million the previous club-record seven-year deal for Kevin Brown in 1999.
Kemp, who earned $7.1 million in 2011 and was in line to double that through arbitration, also agreed to backload the deal and receive "only" $10 million in 2012. That will give a little wiggle room in a payroll that otherwise will be reduced as the Dodgers' battle cash-flow problems with the team in bankruptcy.
Colletti, in fact, again indicated his payroll is so tight he probably won't have room in it to re-sign starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda anywhere near the $12 million he received in 2011, which is why Colletti is considering Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Jeff Francis as replacements.
That apparent contradiction -- a huge deal for Kemp while the 2011 payroll is slashed -- is a factor of the immediacy of the bankruptcy against a backdrop of the long-term future of the franchise and the next owner, who inherits a marquee player and the accompanying financial obligation.
"The people who take over ownership know they are going to have one of the better players in the league," said Colletti. "This is a steadying factor. We still have a budget. And we were going to have to pay him for 2011 regardless."
Kemp agreed not to have a no-trade clause included, although an automatic "10-and-five" trade veto kicks in five seasons into the deal. The financial load before that makes a trade unlikely and Kemp's goal of a lifetime as a Dodger very possible.
"It shows how much they believe in me," he said. "A lot of people try to put pressure on me. I just roll with it. Pressure is something I had to figure out, but it's something I now love."
McCourt, in the process of putting the club up for sale, has said he intends to leave the club better than he found it and explained that locking up Kemp, who would have been eligible for free agency after next year, is a key to that.
McCourt praised the organization's player development system, which was still taking bows for the Cy Young Award Clayton Kershaw won a day earlier. And he challenged Kemp to keep it up after McCourt is no longer owner.
"You saw the opportunity and seized it," said McCourt. "Now it's time to be a leader. Don't put too much pressure on yourself; it will all come in time. There's no doubt in my mind you will be the leader the franchise is looking for."
The record of the Dodgers and long-term contracts over the past dozen years, however, is dreadful. In addition to Brown, the list over that time of Dodgers deals longer than three years consists of Brown, Shawn Green, Juan Pierre, Darren Dreifort, J.D. Drew, Derek Lowe, Mark Grudzielanek, Kaz Ishii and Eric Karros. It would be hard to make a case that many of those contracts worked out well for the club, as most of them were either traded or injured by the end of the deals.
Kemp said he has learned from his mistakes and relishes the role of leader. He added that he isn't worried about the spotty legacy of long-term contracts and, while saying so, went into Chamber of Commerce mode.
"Eight years in Los Angeles sounds good," Kemp said. "I love the city, the fans embrace me. It's like Mr. McCourt said, I want to spend the rest of my career here, like Derek Jeter with the Yankees. I'd like to be part of this dynasty, the opportunity to do something special here.
"This is the team that worked me out, drafted me, called me up. This is a beautiful city. It's so much fun here. There are places to eat, great people to meet. You see how fun it can be when the Lakers are winning. Even when we won. I want to be here when we win."
Colletti, who has had his share of deals gone bad, was optimistic this wouldn't be one of them.
"He's on the verge of free agency in a year and, typically, free agents at his level are getting seven, eight years," said Colletti. "At his age, being somebody we knew and have a good feel for who he is, with the skill set he has, he does everything and he plays every day -- there's always risk, but in his case less than most."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.