10/09/09 10:00 AM EST
Path of the Pros: Matt Kemp
Outfielder showed flashes of versatility in Minors
By John Torenli / Special to MLB.com
While the 25-year-old center fielder ultimately fell just shy of accomplishing the feat, finishing with a .297 average, 26 homers, 101 RBIs, 97 runs, 25 doubles and 34 steals, it appears as though he will have plenty of opportunities to challenge the mark in years to come.
"I never envisioned him getting to this point this season," Los Angeles manager Joe Torre said of the fast-developing Kemp, who emerged as a legitimate National League MVP candidate this season along with teammate Andre Ethier.
"Matt has been unbelievable, and I think there's more there," Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly added.
That's pretty lofty praise from a pair of former big league MVPs, both of whom get an up-close look at Kemp every day.
Though it's always tough to predict how a Minor League prospect -- even one with the five tools Kemp boasts -- will produce in the Majors, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Oklahoma native gave some early indications of his versatility.
In his first extended taste of pro action after a 42-game stint with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers in 2003, Kemp hit .288 with 17 homers, 67 runs scored, 66 RBIs, 22 doubles and eight steals in 111 games with the Class A Columbus Catfish in 2004.
The Dodgers' third-round pick in the 2003 Draft was even better with Class A Advanced Vero Beach in his third year, hitting .306 with a team-record 27 homers, 90 RBIs, 76 runs scored, 21 doubles and 23 steals.
Of course, those statistics pale in comparison to what the Midwest City, Okla., native did for the NL West champions this year, but not when you consider he put up those eye-popping numbers in only 109 games -- 50 less than he played in this year.
Kemp, who led the Florida State League in slugging percentage (.569) and homers per at-bat (1/15.48) during that dominant campaign, also paced Vero Beach in homers, RBIs and steals. He batted .364 (4-for-11) with two homers, four RBIs and two runs scored in three games during the 2005 Florida State League playoffs.
The versatility didn't end there, however. Kemp also had a .976 fielding percentage -- four errors in 207 chances -- and picked up four outfield assists along the way.
It isn't any wonder that Kemp's first taste of the big leagues came less than a year later after hitting .327 with seven homers, 38 runs scored, 34 RBIs, 15 doubles and 11 steals in only 48 games at Double-A Jacksonville.
Initially, the Midwest City High School product struggled to maintain a consistently high average during his initial callup, hitting .253 in 52 games. But he did blast seven homers, score 30 times, drive in 23 runs and rip seven doubles while stealing six bases.
Though his first foray into big league ball was interrupted by a 44-game stop at Triple-A Las Vegas, Kemp made the most of the reassignment, hitting a blistering .368 with three homers, 37 runs scored, 36 RBIs, 14 doubles and 14 steals.
"Matt's a physical specimen, a big guy who can run and throw and hit for power and steal bases and play defense," Las Vegas manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Kemp in the Las Vegas-Review Journal. "He's got a chance to be able to do it all.
"He's got a lot to learn about this game, and he's on the right track. He's a super talent, there's no doubt about it."
Though Bundy's words ultimately proved prophetic, Kemp returned to Los Angeles that September, but managed to hit only .143 (4-for-28) during limited action in 14 games.
In 2007, Kemp hit .329 with four homers, 32 runs scored, 20 RBIs, 12 doubles and nine steals for the 51s before leaving the Minors for good that June.
He hasn't looked back since.
"To me, Matt is what makes us go," said Dodgers teammate Doug Mientkiewicz. "He's our team's MVP, not to disrespect Andre Ethier, who is having an MVP year. But Matt brings an edge, a snarl, an aggressiveness to us that we need, that every team needs. We feed off his energy."
Kemp made the most of his 98 games with Los Angeles in 2007, batting .342 with 10 homers, 47 runs scored and 42 RBIs with 12 doubles and 10 steals.
During Torre's first season with the Dodgers in 2008, the former Florida State League All-Star hit .290 with 18 homers, 93 runs scored and 76 RBIs with career bests of 38 doubles and 35 steals. He batted .250 (4-for-28) with one RBI and a run scored in the Dodgers' eight playoff games that year -- numbers he hopes to improve on this October.
"The great players really want to keep getting better," Mattingly said. "He's already a great player, but there's more there, and I say that out of respect. That's not a knock on what he's done so far. He can just get better and some of that may be in ways that don't necessarily show up numbers-wise."
2003: Kemp hit .270 with a homer, 17 RBIs, 11 runs scored, five doubles and two steals in 42 games with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers. He went 3-for-4 with his first career pro homer, two RBIs and two runs scored on Aug. 23.
2004:: Kemp's first full season in the Minors was highlighted by a three-homer, five-RBI performance against Class A Rome on July 23. He finished the year with an 11-game stint at Vero Beach, hitting .351 with a homer, nine RBIs and five runs scored, providing a preview of his monster 2005 campaign.
2005: Kemp earned FSL Player of the Week honors after putting together a spectacular three-game stretch from May 20-22 in which he went 7-for-14 with five homers, 11 RBIs and five runs scored against Class A Advanced Tampa. Kemp also received an invite to the exclusive Arizona Fall League, hitting .383 with three homers, 18 runs scored and 16 RBIs in 23 games against the best prospects of other organizations. He also went 4-for-4 with two homers to lead the Dodgers to victory in the AFL title game.
2006: Kemp's 48-game stop at Double-A Jacksonville prior to his first big league promotion featured a five-RBI effort against Carolina on May 8. He eventually finished the year strong at Triple-A Las Vegas, producing a quintet of four-hit games, including a season-best 5-for-7 performance against Portland on Aug. 18. Kemp batted a blistering .452 (19-for-42) with three homers and 12 RBIs against left-handed pitchers in the Pacific Coast League.
2007: Kemp batted .370 (10-for-27) with a homer, six runs scored and four RBIs in his final six games with the 51s before joining Los Angeles for good on June 8.
John Torenli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.