I’d be surprised if the Atlanta Braves made another major move before today’s 4 p.m. deadline, but I was surprised — nay, shocked — that they traded for Matt Kemp. Here’s a guy who had a WAR (wins above replacement) value of 8.2 in 2011 alone but a combined WAR of 4.6 in the 4 1/2 season since.
Since you asked, the Braves pay attention to WAR. Heck, their in-house analysts have tweaked the various formulas to come up with a WAR of their own. I’m not privy to that proprietary data, but I can’t imagine it shows anything we don’t already know: Kemp is a once-great player in prolonged decline who has become so dispensable that two teams have been willing not just to trade him but to absorb a a partial cost of his massive salary.
This was such an un-Braves like acquisition that it still seems a bit unreal. Yes, Kemp came in trade for the disgraced Hector Olivera, but the Braves could have eaten Olivera’s contract — he was owed $28.5 million over the next four years — and called it a day. Instead they’ve absorbed the added cost of $25.5 million for Kemp.
(He’s due to make $21.5 million each of the next three seasons. The Padres are paying $3.5 million of that per year. That’s $54 million the Braves now owe Kemp. Minus the $28.5 million for Olivera they offloaded, that’s $25.5 million, or $8.5 million per year.)
That final number is the one the Braves kept seeing: “We can get a guy who doesn’t do anything but hit home runs for $8.5 million a year.” If you’re the Orioles or the Blue Jays, who have a bunch of guys who can hit home runs, you’d have no need for Kemp. But the Braves as a team have 65 homers; Kemp has 23 by himself.
None of Kemp’s other numbers would have impelled the Braves to pay him a dime. He has 16 walks (three intentional) in 431 plate appearances. He’s among the worst right fielders in the sport. (He might wind up in left field here, at least until the Braves trade Markakis.) He stole 40 bases in 2011; he hasn’t tried to steal this season. Even with 23 homers and 69 RBIs, his Weighted Runs Created Plus is, per FanGraphs, 104. League average is 100.
To any other team, he wouldn’t be an $8.5-million-man, to say nothing of $21 million. That’s why the Dodgers were happy to trade him to the Padres two offseasons ago and why the Padres were willing to take and then cut Olivera and his $28.5 million. But the Braves saw just enough in Kemp to make an un-Braves-like move because they’re starved for power and even the arrival of Dansby Swanson/Ozzie Albies presumably next year won’t do much to change that.
If you hated watching Dan Uggla or either Upton, you’ll be frustrated by Kemp, too. He strikes out a lot. (One hundred Ks in those 431 plate appearances. That’s also something the Braves have been trying not to do.) David Schoenfield of ESPN’s SweetSpot wrote this Saturday: “I was at a Padres-Dodgers game right before the All-Star break and never saw a player display such bad body language in a game … He looked like the most joyless baseball player ever.”
The Braves surely know all this and more. (They have scouts. They have phones. They know how to text.) But they got Kemp because he can fill a need nobody currently in this organization is capable of filling. He can hit the ball over the wall.
Eight days ago, the sub-.500 Rockies completed a four-game home sweep. In those four games, the Braves were out-homered 10-2. Yes, the Rockies are used to such games, but Coors Field and altitude should help the visiting team, too. As of today, the Braves are on pace to finish their 162-game schedule with 100 home runs — exactly as many as last year, when they were likewise the worst in the majors.
When Mallex Smith gets healthy, the Braves were looking at an outfield of Smith, Ender Inciarte and Markakis. All are left-handed hitters, the three having combined for nine homers. Even if the right-handed Kemp does nothing else as a Brave — and he might well do nothing else — he’ll hit the occasional home run. He wouldn’t be worth $8.5 million to many other teams; he might be worth it here.
The Braves don’t need Kemp to be Babe Ruth. If he can manage even an passable impression of Dave Kingman, they’d be ecstatic.