Commentary

Matter of time for Colletti and Kemp

The center fielder is shining, but his long-term stay in L.A. may not be as clear

Updated: July 30, 2011, 2:20 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Matt KempKyle Terada/US PresswireMatt Kemp is hitting over .310 and is second in the National League with 24 home runs.
LOS ANGELES -- Five months ago, Ned Colletti wasn't sure. No one was.

Matt Kemp was coming off a tangled, tortuous season that raised concerns for everyone in baseball about his long-term future.

Had Kemp peaked in his breakthrough 2009 season? Were his failings in 2010 one-year anomalies, or the seeds of much larger issues? Could Davey Lopes and Don Mattingly be enough to turn him around? And if they didn't, were the Dodgers better off trading him?

When Kemp showed up in spring training lighter and leaner, losing both the excess weight and the surly attitude that slowed him down in 2010, Colletti pronounced himself cautiously optimistic his young star could turn his career around.

All Kemp has done since then is play the best baseball of his career.

He has been great, both on the field and in the clubhouse. A leader, even.

Colletti Matt is becoming one of the better players in the game. He's always been a five-tool player, he was just short on experience.

-- Ned Colletti, Dodgers GM on Matt Kemp

For a franchise and fan base that's been pelted as hard as the Dodgers have this season, Kemp and budding star Clayton Kershaw have become the reasons to get up in the morning or buy season tickets for next year.

"Matt is becoming one of the better players in the game," Colletti said during a recent interview in his Dodger Stadium offices. "He's always been a five-tool player, he was just short on experience.

"Now, with that experience, he's become an excellent player who can help you in the field, on the bases, at the plate. He can probably even help you in the clubhouse."

From Colletti -- a guy who publicly criticized Kemp's preparation and effort last season -- that's high praise indeed.

Real praise, that really means something.

In any other year, or maybe just with any other franchise, 12 beat writers would be calling Colletti daily to ask if or when the team was going to lock Kemp up to a long-term deal before he can become a free agent after next season.

But this hasn't been any other year, or any other franchise, for a while now.

Which means Colletti has to answer a question about Kemp's long-term future with the Dodgers like this:

"Clearly, from a baseball perspective, from a team angle, absolutely I would do that," he said. "Not right now, at the end of the season.

"But they [Kemp and fellow All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier] are two guys that sit in the middle of your lineup who are in their prime, or approaching their prime.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMatt Kemp can become a free agent after the 2012 season.

"So I'm comfortable enough to think about [an extension]."

That answer, in and of itself, is a revelation because of the change in the organization's feeling about Kemp and Ethier from just five months earlier.

But don't exhale just yet. The follow-up question is a doozy.

Will this be purely a baseball decision?

"I can't answer that because I don't know the answer to that," Colletti said. "That's a very truthful answer. ... It's the only one I've got."

If you didn't know Colletti well, you might think he was choosing his words carefully, concealing something, even.

The truth is, he was giving the only honest answer he can give.

Ned Colletti, general manager of the Dodgers, is just as in the dark about what the future for the Dodgers holds as you are.

It might seem like embattled owner Frank McCourt is nearing the endgame in his courtroom battles against Major League Baseball and former wife Jamie McCourt, but most likely a final ending is still at least six months to a year away.

Six months might seem like a short time, but you don't even need to pull a calendar out to realize the dire implications that lag time could have for Kemp and Ethier's long-term future with the team.

Colletti was adamant that he would never give any player a long-term extension during the season. That buys McCourt until November to settle his personal and legal issues before he'd need to make a call on a huge financial commitment to either Kemp or Ethier.

And yes, McCourt, not a bankruptcy court judge or MLB monitor Tom Schieffer, would have to sign off on that kind of a decision.

But does anybody really think McCourt will have anything sufficiently settled by November?

"It's just going to be a long time," said one prominent agent, who has dealt frequently with the Dodgers. "So there's no use thinking too much about it, or what any of the rulings mean. It's going to be a long time before we know how this ends. Whether it's six months or 12 months or 18 months doesn't really matter."

In other words, even if Colletti and his staff decide it would be a good baseball decision to sign Kemp or Ethier to a longer-term deal before each heads into his final year before free agency, and even if Kemp or Ethier wants to sign a long-term deal with the team, there's no way of knowing if that could actually happen right now.

Colletti remains stoic about the situation.

He has to be.

"I'm not concerned about that right now," he said. "Until I know really what the situation is, I can't get concerned over something I don't know the answer to."

Is there a point he'll have to get some clarity on the situation?

"At some point in time we're obviously going to have to know what's possible," he said. "But I don't know what the timeline is."

Colletti says he speaks with McCourt directly at least once a week. They talk about baseball, as they always have. And they are friends as well as colleagues.

But sometimes, even when you are friends, it's best not to ask questions you might not like the answer to.

Questions like, "When will this all be over?" Or: "When is it safe to plan for the future?" Or worse: "Even if I think we should, can we?"

Colletti says he hasn't asked those questions because now is not the time.

But that time is coming soon.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.