Should The Rangers Be Interested In Matt Kemp or Justin Upton?

Right-handed power has been the overused cliche heard many times by everyone who has been paying heed to the happenings of the baseball offseason. What we have seen so far are teams willing to pay a premium on potent right-handed sluggers due to the perceived scarcity of the skill available on the market. Nelson Cruz, Billy Butler,Michael Cuddyer, and Hanley Ramirez all fit the mold of formidable right-handed bashers capable of clubbing baseballs long distances, and all have been paid rather handsomely this offseason.
There are a variety of reasons as to why right-handed power has become rarer in baseball, which Dave Cameron details here, but right handed hitting as a whole, robust or feeble, has actually become sparse in general. With light hitting left handed defensive specialists receiving more plate appearances to gain the platoon advantage, teams are desiring right handed options to regain an edge against tough left handed pitching, and the Rangers are currently no different as Texas has once again been rumored to have interest in Atlanta Braves outfielder Justin Upton, and some intrigue in Los Angeles Dodgers outfielderMatt Kemp.

As perfectly described by Lone Star Ball’s Adam J. Morris, Upton has been Jon Daniels’ white whale as the Texas general manager has unsuccessfully tried on multiple occasions to acquire the 27 year old outfielder, and is due to earn $14.5 million dollars in his final year of his contract. Kemp, who turned 30 in September, is part of the Dodgers gluttony of outfield options, and is due $107 million dollars over the next five seasons.

The Rangers currently have a need for a corner outfielder as Steamer currently projects Michael Choice to be the most productive right fielder in 2015 with 0.5 fWAR, so with Steamer projecting Upton to yield 3.1 fWAR, and Kemp projected to generate 2.1 fWAR, Upton and Kemp would both theoretically be substantial upgrades. But, both players are currently involved in rather abstract contractual situations, and the one who is on the wrong side of 30 is the one under contract for the next five years.

Upton and Kemp both possess the desired ability to hit for power from the right side of the plate as Upton finished fifth in the National League in ’14 with an isolated power of .221, while Kemp finished right behind him at .220. If one decides to expand the sample and include 2012 and 2013, Upton’s ISO of .191 is tied for 24th in the senior circuit, and Upton played the majority of his games in ’12 in a hitter’s ballpark in Arizona, while Kemp’s ISO is 13th at .205, but Kemp battled through injury issues in ’12 and ’13 which sapped some of his power after his MVP caliber 2011 season.

One concern the author has with both players is their current skill set as the majority of their value is reliant on their bat. Since 2012, Kemp has been worth -42 DRS, tied for the worst in baseball during that time period. Current Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is the player tied with Kemp for this dubious distinction, but Choo played very poorly out of position in center field by necessity for Cincinnati in ’13, and was awful in the field last season due to injury. Upton has been slightly below average at -4 DRS since 2012.

Both Upton and Kemp were once stellar base runners as Upton produced the 22nd most BsR, Fangraphs base running metric, between 2011-13 with 13.1 before producing only 0.6 this past season. Kemp stole 34 or more bases three times between the years 2008 and 2011, including 40 in ’11, but has not stolen ten bases in a season since, and yielded -2.0 BsR in ’14.

One item of intrigue the author recommends is the Fans Scouting Report over at Fangraphs. Fans can visit his or her favorite player’s page and assign grades between 0-100 for a variety of the player’s skills including speed, first step, and arm strength. The grades are completely subjective, but the grades provide you with an indication of what people think the player’s current skill set is in a variety of areas. I will now present to you Matt Kemp’s grades since the year 2009 in instincts, first step, speed, arm strength, and arm accuracy.

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Again, these grades are subjective, but the scores still indicate that while defensive metrics might not be 100% reliable, Kemp fails the eyeball test defensively among fans as well. His speed score has also declined every year the voting has been held. Diminishing speed and defensive skills are not uncommon as players begin to age. All humans experience it, but with Kemp being under contract until 2019 for over $100 million dollars, a continued decline will put that much more pressure on his bat. The author will now present to you Upton’s scores in the same categories.
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Upton is three years younger than Kemp, but his speed, arm strength, and arm accuracy all grade lower, while being slightly higher in instincts and first step. Upton and Kemp are both large human beings, so the diminishing scores are not all that surprising, and with the rapidly elevating strikeout rate in baseball leading to fewer balls being put in play, their slugging ability could outweigh these deficiencies. However,this piece written at The Hardball Times last year discusses decreases in fly ball distance as players get older, which I am sure you were cognizant of that occurring with all baseball playing humans.

If you decided to read the very enlightening piece, you would have discovered that right-handed hitters at Kemp’s age begin a downward spiral of diminishing fly ball distance to all fields, especially to left field, while Upton is in his peak year for pulled fly ball distance, which could be beneficial to his chances of remaining productive in the near future. Let us now look at each player’s average fly ball distance in feet since 2008 to see if we see a somewhat similar trend using the fantastic statistical baseball wonderland known as Baseball Savant.

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Kemp did yield his highest fly ball distance average in his age 27 season, which would validate the peak at age 27. However, after shoulder issues minimized Kemp’s power in ‘13, his average fly ball distance in ‘14 did increase over fifteen feet back to a level similar to his earlier playing days. Upton’s distance also increased the near same amount last season after decreasing to a career low 280.5 feet in ’13.

Both of the players increasing their average fly ball distance in ’14 is encouraging, especially in their pitcher friendly home ballparks, but what about their contact rates? In this age of pitcher dominance, contact is important, and high whiff totals and poor plate discipline are predictive of future struggles.

Despite hitting a large amount of balls in the air, Upton increased his BABIP from .321 in ’13 to .332 in ’14. Upton’s line drive percentage was slightly above his career average last year, and with his lack of speed, you would expect his BABIP to fall some, which is why Steamer predicts a .316 BABIP in ’15. Upton’s whiff percentage did increase, but he also managed to make more contact with pitches in the zone in ’14, and yielded acceptable plate discipline numbers.

Despite losing a step or two, Kemp has made a career out of posting a stellar career BABIP of .351, including a .345 total last season. The former All-Star has been adept at barreling pitches throughout his time in the majors as his 22.4% career line drive percentage indicates. He has posted over 25% line drive percentages the last two years, so one would expect that total to regress some in ’15. With Kemp hitting a moderate amount of balls on the ground, and with infield shifting becoming more prevalent, Steamer’s projected .327 BABIP in ’15 seems reasonable. Kemp has also maintained respectable plate discipline numbers, while increasing his Z-Contact% and lowering his whiff percentage last year.

The author did not intend for this piece to become a comparison of both players, although I suppose it kind of did. As previously mentioned, Kemp and Upton’s contracts are a dichotomy. Upton has one year left, and Kemp five. The Braves are said to be asking for more than what they received for Jason Heyward, and Heyward is a better overall player than Upton if you buy into the overall value of defensive metrics. What makes trading for Upton complicated is he is owed $14.5 million dollars next year, and is projected to be slightly over a three win player in ‘15. With wins being worth close to seven million, trading seven million dollars in assets should be enough to procure Upton’s rights, but it probably will not be if the suggested asking price is correct.

The author recommends reading this page which discloses what the overall future monetary value top prospects produce based on their respective prospect ranking according to Baseball America. Based on the Braves recent signing of Nick Markakis, acquiring a back end starter with upside in Shelby Miller in the Heyward deal, and the recent trend of teams acquiring immediate value in trades, one is unsure if the Braves desire future value in prospects anyways. However, one continues.

Rangers pitching prospect Chi-Chi Gonzalez appeared on The Baseball Prospectus mid-season Top 50 prospect list at 49 earlier this summer, elevating from 70 on this list earlier this year. So, we will just split the difference and say Gonzalez falls in the Pitchers 51-75 category listed on the value sheet I linked, which values Gonzalez at $7.5 million dollars in future value. Upton for Gonzalez should be enough in future fiscal value to get a deal done, but with the right-handed power in such demand, and the Braves claiming to want more for Upton than Heyward, there is little chance the Braves would accept Gonzalez for Upton straight up. With Upton having only one year left on his deal, and the Rangers projected fWAR fourth in the American League West, the author feels trading more future cost effective value for one year of Upton is rather myopic. The team would have the privilege in gaining exclusive negotiating rights with Upton to work out a long term deal, but with his type of skill set, and contracts becoming increasingly expensive, retaining Upton would require Jerry Jone money.

Kemp is under contract for five more years at $107 million dollars as mentioned above. If Kemp were on the open market, whether or not a team would be willing to sign him to such a deal is nebulous. The speculative trade for Kemp has involved shortstop Elvis Andrus as Andrus is entering the first year of an eight year $118 dollar contract. With Kemp’s current skill set, and fly ball distance aging like it does, one is unsure whether trading for Elvis for Kemp makes much sense. Kemp will provide more value with the bat, but Elvis plays a key up the middle position on the diamond, and adds value in base running. Elvis struggled in both categories in ’14, but the author would still hedge his bets on the 26 year old athletic shortstop to provide more value in the future than the player who can only hit for power at this point, and The Hardball Times article linked above suggests he might not be able to do that much longer. For what it is worth, ESPN’s Keith Law recently tweeted he’d trade Elvis for Kemp.

If Elvis is not involved, then the Dodgers would have to eat a significant chunk of his salary for this GM sitting lazily on his sofa to accept, which the author is unsure the Dodgers are willing to do because LA’s new super front office will probably begin to spend more efficiently in the future, and the reader should probably check out how much money the Rangers already owe players in 2019 and 2020.

Many teams are lusting for the coveted right-handed power, and both Upton and Kemp are enticing, but with the Rangers current situation, one is unsure if trading for either one would be the optimal decision. Kemp or Upton might not improve the team’s chances anyways, and the club would still need to add a pitcher somehow. Burning a commodity on either one when the club could use it on a pitcher via trade seems more prudent. There are internal options with some upside including Ryan Rua and Jake Smolinski, and external short term options that will not cost much money or draft picks which would make more sense. If forced to choose, one probably chooses Kemp, but with over $67.7 million dollars already committed in ’19 to two future DHs whose value is reliant on their bat, that trade would still feel uncomfortable. With the winter meetings beginning this week, one supposes we might find out pretty quickly whether the Rangers pursue the perceived scarce resource in right-handed power, or go another route.

Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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