Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/14/11

The Dodgers, in the midst of a difficult transition period and sale, may have trouble getting approval to sign a big-ticket free agent. That doesn’t mean they can’t affect change in the free agent market place. As the team engages their 27-year-old once-maligned center fielder in extension discussions, they might be preparing do just that. Will the rumored numbers that will keep Matt Kemp off the market — eight years, $160 million — count as an asset for the team in the future?

It does seem like new sabermetrician and Dodgers’ General Manager Ned Colletti has his hands tied with the ongoing bankruptcy sale of the team, but outgoing owner Frank McCourt told his GM that he can bid on any free agent he sees fit — even Prince Fielder. Either way, though, the team payroll has been hovering around $100 million since 2006. Once 2012 arbitration numbers are added in to the combined ten million doll;ars the team will pay Andruw Jones and Manny Ramirez in 2012, they’d be at $92 million already. That probably doesn’t leave room for Fielder.

One of the years in this deal will replace Kemp’s final year of arbitration. Using that year as a guidepost, the deal might be considered neutral. Matt Swartz’s arbitration predictor has Kemp being awarded $16.3 million in 2012. The arb system sort of rewards players at about 80% of their ‘market value’ in their last year of arbitration. That would be $20.3 million, or the average annual rate that seems to be in the cards.

But we don’t all have the same ideas about market value, and the arbitration system would be a flawed guidepost at best. By the value metrics on this site, Kemp’s 2011 breakout season may have been ‘worth’ twice as much as the AAV on his new deal. By those same metrics, his 2010 season was worth only about $2 million in all.

The difference between those two seasons was not all defense.

Sure, Kemp’s defense is a big part of the discussion. His 2010 season in center field was really bad on many levels. Ultimate Zone Rating rated him as the worst defender in the league relative to his position (-27.5 UZR/150) that year, but that stat wasn’t lone. Every defensive metric — from DRS (-15) to the fans (-3) — agreed that he was bad in 2010. Finally, his team’s management made public statements about how bad his glove was.

“If this is the last day of the season and people are voting for the Gold Glove, his name is not even on the ballot. It’s a shame that he would go from where he was a year ago to revert back to when the ball goes up in the air and you’re not sure where it’s going, or if it’s going to get caught.” — Ned Colletti

But hidden in that 2010 famous comment from Colletti is an uncovering of a further truth. Not only was Kemp terrible in the field in 2010, but he was better in 2009. In that year, his second year as an every day center fielder, Kemp was actually above-average by UZR (+3.8 UZR/150), the fans (+7), and DRS (+2). Total Zone didn’t like him so much (-8.3) but there’s a reason for this disagreement. Just look at his career UZR components and you’ll see that some parts of his defensive game are more impressive than others.

Kemp, seen as a defender in total, has below-average range, catches what he gets to the most part, and has an excellent arm. Add it all up and it’s a slightly-below-average center fielder who would likely be an above-average corner outfielder considering his arm and ability to make the catches he’s supposed to.

But what happened to his bat in 2009? He was only worth 3.7 batting runs that year and no matter what his defensive stats say, if he reverts to that version, his contract extension would be a bane not a boon.

It really looks like two scary statistics were at the heart of his disappearance that season: batting average on balls in play and strikeout rate. Kemp has had a .352 BABIP over his career — most likely the product of his fleet feet, and 1.10 GB/FB career rate. In 2009, his BABIP was a mere .295. Kemp has also struck out 23.4% of his career plate appearances — a slightly below-average rate that is in large part the product of his career 12.7% swinging strike rate (8.5% is average). In 2009, his strikeout rate spiked to 25.4%.

Pitches missed his bat more often, and his balls in play found gloves more often. That combination will tank most players’ offensive value, but they’re still scary. For one, his swinging strike rate was the same in 2009 (12.6%) as is has been over his career, so the potential to strike out more will always be there. And Kemp’s .380 BABIP last year led baseball. The highest BABIP by any player with more than 2000 PAs since 2000 is Joey Votto‘s .352. That number should look familiar.

Couldn’t Kemp fall into his old ways once again? There’s at least one universe in which Kemp turns into an average right fielder on defense while striking out in a quarter of his at-bats and blaming his aging wheels for lower BABIPs and disappointing batting averages. If the gains he made in power (.262 isolated slugging last year, .201 ISO career) and walk rate (10.7% last year, 7.9% career) were more noise than signal, this deal could turn into a pumpkin quickly.

Of course, there’s another universe in which all of those gains were real. In that universe, Kemp continues to return more than $20 million in yearly value as a decent center fielder and a plus right fielder when he moves over. If you treat his 8.7 WAR this past season as a true-talent peak, he would be worth more than his contract even with a half-win drop every year for the next eight years.

Given the unique circumstance the Dodgers are in right now, the deal makes sense in all universes. The team has added a long-term asset without adding any 2012 payroll in all likelihood. The player now has long-term job security in a town that he enjoys. And the next ownership and management group can reap the rewards if it works out, and blame the former group if it doesn’t. Everyone has their reasons to like this deal.

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