Kemp content taking small steps on road to recovery
Rehabbing Dodgers star plays outfield for first time in spring in intrasquad game
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The days of Spring Training are dwindling to a spare few, and right now it looks like Matt Kemp will remain at Camelback Ranch, not only when the Dodgers break camp this weekend for their season-opening trip to Australia, but well beyond that.
At this point, there are no plans for Kemp to be with the team when the Dodgers play their secondary opener against the Padres in San Diego on March 30.
"It would be a big surprise if he was," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers' vice president of medical services who was on hand to monitor Kemp as he played in an intrasquad game on Wednesday. "We're not really sure how this will even work. We're really taking this only a day at a time and a week at a time. We'll see where we are at the end of this week, and by the time we go to Australia, we'll have a plan."
Kemp was once the guiding light of a rebuilding franchise. Now, he's recovering from offseason left ankle and left shoulder surgeries and was relegated to the back fields of the Minor League side of the complex Wednesday while his big league counterparts played a split-squad edition of the D-backs in the stadium.
Kemp and rookie second baseman Alex Guerrero were the only players out there in the bright, baking sun with names on their Dodger Blue jerseys.
Kemp went 0-for-6, grounding out four times to the left side and popping out twice to right. But more important, he played six outs in center field for the first time this spring. It's just baby steps, Kemp knows, as he slowly builds toward a return the Major Leagues.
"I'm definitely hungry, definitely ready to come back," Kemp said. "I just need to take my time and take it day to day."
Kemp will remain behind when the Dodgers travel to Sydney to play the D-backs on March 22-23 for the Opening Series. But it's also now likely that Kemp will remain here for extended spring camp.
Time marches on, and right now the clock is not in Kemp's favor.
"We're just kind of putting along here getting him into intrasquad games and going through a progression," Conte said. "And he still has to go through a Spring Training. There's still just no timetable on him."
Kemp, 29, hasn't put in a full season since 2011, when he played in 161 games, hit .324, led the National League in homers (39), RBIs (126), runs scored (115), finished second in the NL MVP Award voting to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and earned an eight-year, $160 million contract.
Back then, stardom in Los Angeles was his. Now, Kemp is not even the fourth wheel on a team with a $240 million payroll and stars at almost every position.
That's because of all this: Kemp missed 56 games in 2012, mostly because of a series of hamstring strains. When he returned that September, he injured his left shoulder running into an outfield fence, played the rest of the season hurt, and ultimately underwent surgery.
Last year, Kemp was on the disabled list twice because of shoulder inflammation and the ankle injury. He missed most of June, most of July, all of August and the first two weeks of September, playing in a total of only 73 games.
Kemp returned on Sept. 16 and the very next night had a massive 4-for-4 performance, with a pair of doubles and three RBIs in a 9-3 win over the D-backs at Chase Field, his best offensive performance of that injury-riddled season. He started nine of 11 games, but wasn't available in the playoffs, which ended for the Dodgers when they lost the NL Championship Series to the Cardinals in six games.
There were the surgeries and the downtime. It's been a long road back.
"I just sum it up as it is what it is," Kemp said on Wednesday. "Injuries happen. They're part of the game. Some are worse than others, but for me, it makes me want to work even harder. I just want to get back out there with my team and compete."
Kemp was once was an ironman of sorts, playing in 399 consecutive games -- a streak that ended with the hamstring injury on May 14, 2012. He opened that season just the way he ended 2011, with a hellacious month of April, hitting .417 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs. Save for flashes, Kemp hasn't been the same player since.
Now Kemp is taking those baby steps. In his most recent intrasquad game, he played the top and bottom of an inning in center field for the first time, easily fielding a ground single and catching a lazy fly ball in the Arizona desert heat.
Kemp's bat appeared to be a tad slow, but he isn't really worried about that. The question is whether he can replicate his old prowess.
"I feel a little weird still being out there," Kemp said. "I'm still trying to get my legs under me. My legs feel a little heavy and tired at times. That comes with getting back in shape as far as being on the field. You can lift as many weights as you want, but nothing compares with game speed out there on the baseball field.
"I'm having a lot of fun. I'm just happy to be back out on the field playing. It's a process. We're taking our time."
And time now is of the essence.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.