I've never been a big fan of Bill Plaschke. I respect his writing style and the numerous awards that he was won. But I've long accepted that Plaschke and I see the sports through completely different lenses, and I haven't criticized his work as much as I've wanted to.
One of my chief complaints about Plaschke is that he's fickle. He's a columnist who will quickly change his opinion, going whichever way the wind blows. Perhaps no single player illustrates this point more than Matt Kemp. Today, I was absolutely flabbergasted when online and saw his LA Times column headlined "Dodgers' Matt Kemp shows his tremendous upside."
I was floored, because no sports writer in this town has been more critical of Matt Kemp over the years. Yet here was Plaschke writing:
Watching Matt Kemp play center field is like watching a Lakers shooting guard who somehow wandered into baggy baseball pants.
He soars. He dishes. He bangs.
There was a time when Plaschke advocated trading Kemp, but now he's comparing him to Kobe Bryant. I've always been a Matt Kemp fan, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Kemp is not the best player in his sport. Still, I'm glad that Plaschke has finally gotten on the Kemp bandwagon after waiting the interminably long 2-year period for him to develop.
Here is a sampling of Plaschke's love-hate-love-hate-love relationship with Kemp.
On July 26, 2006, Plaschke wrote a column headlined "Colletti Should Choose Sacrifice Over Surrender" in which he advocated the Dodgers trade a prospect for help at the deadline. Still he valued Matt Kemp and wrote: "I'm not talking about trading the Russell-Martin-Andre-Ethier- Jonathan-Broxton-Matt-Kemp kind of kids."
A few months later, Plaschke decided he was talking about trading those kind of kids. In a December 10, 2006 column headlined "With power low, Colletti must work the phones" claiming the Dodgers should trade for a power hitter, Plaschke wrote:
The combination of [Brad] Penny and one of the Dodgers' prospects would fetch a hitter like Toronto's Vernon Wells or Atlanta's Andruw Jones. ...
Or, what's wrong with packaging Penny with Matt Kemp?
After Kemp's initial power surge last summer, he looked lost against the curveball and is still clearly a year away from making a regular impact. Considering he may never field the position well enough to play center field, why not take advantage of his potential in a trade right now?
In fairness, no one expected Andruw Jones to collapse the way he did, but both him and Wells have been signed to two of the worst contracts in MLB history. Despite Penny's ups and downs, it's a good thing that Ned Colletti didn't take Plaschke's advice.
By the middle of next season, Plaschke had changed his mind again. He suddenly liked Kemp, and all of the Dodger young players. In a June 22, 2007 column headlined "Colletti should blaze trail by just staying the course" Plaschke advised Colletti: "Stay put. Hold fast. Don't do anything crazy. [Colletti's] youngsters are fun." He later added:
But Colletti should politely refuse again, and hand the phone to a fan, who will tell him that these kids are just too much fun to give up.
With the Dodgers games blaring in the background of my life in the last couple of weeks, I have stopped to watch James Loney hit. I have dropped everything to watch Matt Kemp swing. I'm almost always sitting down when Russell Martin is coming up.
Plaschke further echoed this point in an August 2, 2007 column headlined: "Dodgers wise not to trade future for present". He wrote:
For the first time in a decade, they are no longer the kind of team that needs to do calisthenics every July to be strong for many Octobers.
They have a nucleus. They have a surplus. They have a clue.
What they may not eventually have this season is a spot in the playoffs, but -- and I can't believe I'm writing this -- maybe that can wait.
Maybe they have to sacrifice a September for James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to learn how to play in the heat.
Maybe they have to lose a division for Jonathon Broxton to learn how to pitch under the glare.
Maybe Dodgers fans, just this once, will agree to pay for two months of soaring, skidding fun with an October of silence.
Having finally collected enough good players to contend for several years, the Dodgers smartly refused to break them up for the sake of this one.
Maybe, by taking no big steps, they have actually taken a giant one.
Two weeks later, Plaschke's patience was already starting to wear thin in a column titled "This is going to hurt for a while", he wrote:
The ball bounced under Matt Kemp's glove and rolled toward the right-field wall, a shiny white mistake in an embarrassing sea of green.
The ball flew off Matt Kemp's bat and drifted over the center- field fence, a shiny white souvenir in a triumphant sky of blue.
In a span of about six minutes Tuesday, the Dodgers gave their fans a snapshot of the next six weeks, and the picture is clear.
If you want to cheer, you must first groan.
If you want to enjoy, you must first endure.
If you want to eventually celebrate the successes of the best collection of young Dodgers talent in the last decade, you must first watch them go splat.
There's a reason they don't call it growing joys.
Plaschke still had a grasp for the player development process, but it didn't last long. Just over a month later, he wrote in a Sept. 21 column:
This youth movement has officially gotten old.
I thought it would work, I really did, but I admit today that I am wrong.
This was around the time that the petulant Jeff Kent was feuding with Matt Kemp, and the aging Luis Gonzalez was complaining that the 22-year old rookie was cutting into his playing time. Plaschke appeared to side with "the veterans" and wrote a column with the headline "Don't write Kemp's name in ink in the lineup".
Times blogger Jon Weisman reflects on this column in a post yesterday, but I wanted to bring up a few other lines. Plaschke wrote then:
The kids are no longer untouchable.
At least one of those kids could be the centerpiece in a winter trade that could bring the team a badly needed veteran star.
That kid could be Matt Kemp.
And he later added:
Matt Kemp's breathtaking ability makes him attractive. But his constant struggles to embrace the little things that turn talent into championships make him expendable.
By November 2, 2007, Plaschke had a Kemp trade in his mind. In writing about Joe Torre's hiring, he said:
Who knows what he will do with Matt Kemp? If he and his veteran coaching staff can reach this marvelously talented but tough-to-coach kid, maybe he can stay. But if Kemp is the one piece who can bring in the big hitter, he's gone.
Then on December 7, Plaschke said the Dodgers should trade for Erik Bedard or Johan Santana, claiming:
Either pitcher would cost them Matt Kemp. But either would put them in the playoffs. And, as Jose Lima would tell you, who knows what could happen then?
Ironically, Matt Kemp helped put the Dodgers in the playoffs in 2008 and they're in good position with him in 2009. Neither Bedard nor Santana have reached the playoffs with the Mariners or Mets since that writing. Both pitchers have suffered serious injuries, which have further illustrated the risk associated with trading for an ace pitcher. I'm sure Seattle wishes it hadn't traded Bedard for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and several other prospects. Santana though is one of the five-best pitchers in baseball, but I don't think that Kemp alone could have brought him here.
Plaschke's criticism of Kemp had gotten to be well-known in some baseball circles, and the columnist felt motivated to visit the outfielder in Phoenix where he did his offseason workouts. In a piece titled "Dodgers' Kemp works to improve his image", Plaschke defended himself saying:
The veterans quietly complained about everything from late clubhouse arrivals to dumb baserunning errors to smiles after losses.
Those complaints reached the ears of Dodgers management, whose thoughts reached me, so I wrote a column about the possibility that Kemp would be traded.
It wasn't my idea, it was the Dodgers' idea, yet judging from the angry responses I received, you would have thought I put a "For Sale" sign in front of Kemp's locker.
So all along Plaschke was saying that he wasn't stating his opinion in his opinion column. He was merely reporting that a few people in the Dodgers front office wanted him gone. Just like on July 4, 2008 when he wrote:
It may be time to trade some of that flashy talent for somebody who understands the fundamentals. And, yes, once again, Matt Kemp's name is being whispered through Dodgers offices.
Players such as Kemp and Andre Ethier and James Loney have been more highly touted than guys such as Casey Kotchman, Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar.
But it is those Angels who have a better understanding of winning.
For a guy who is just reporting what other people think about Matt Kemp, Plaschke sure sounds like someone who agrees with them.
Plaschke's critiques of Kemp continued all the way through September 19, 2008, when in a column called "There's a lot that can go wrong", he listed "Matt Kemp's mind" as one those things. He called out Kemp's "blunders on the bases" and criticized him for striking out too much.
But after the Dodgers won a playoff series and lost in the NLCS, Plaschke changed his mind again. This time he liked Kemp, writing on October 16, 2008:
First, keep the kids together, build next season around Ethier, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton and, yes, Billingsley and DeWitt.
I know, I never thought I'd say that, I'm the last one in town to see the light, but at times it has been delightfully blinding. The scars of this series will disappear. Their incredible growth during the second half of this season will not.
He "never thought [he'd] say that" except for the August 2, 2007 column when he also said "I can't believe I'm writing this" in reference to keeping the Dodgers young players together.
Now he's comparing Kemp to Kobe Bryant and saying:
His tires have been kicked so much by folks in town, they forget he's still only 24, two years younger than Ethier.
Yet it's Plaschke who has kicked Kemp's tires as much anyone in this town.
I don't necessarily intend to bash Plaschke here, but he wields as much influence as any sports scribe in Los Angeles. Someone in his position shouldn't be able to change his mind this often and get away with it. I bring all of his past writings up to show how a sports writer can overreact to the present and advocate foolish decisions in the process. It's important for fans and team officials to take Plaschke's opinions with a grain of salt.
The player development process is incredibly complex, and running a baseball team requires a sound vision as well as a nuanced understanding of both the economic and on-field realities that affect the sport. Even the best GMs are wrong about players sometimes, but the Dodgers did the right thing by holding onto Kemp.
Let's be honest about who Matt Kemp is. He's an incredibly talented player who has the potential to be a 30-30 man in multiple years. He's also just 24, still strikes out too much, and he made some silly on-field mistakes in the early stages of his career. It took Kemp just two years to develop into a very good major leaguer, and I would argue that his play was still a net positive for the Dodgers during those 2 developmental years.
He's not Kobe Bryant, but he's definitely not "expendable." He is someone who can be an All-Star multiple times, and he's definitely not a kid anymore. I'm glad the Dodgers didn't trade him.