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Oakland A’s acquire Tony Kemp from Cubs

The utilityman comes to Oakland in exchange for a minor league prospect.

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s made a trade on Monday, acquiring utilityman Tony Kemp from the Cubs, the team announced. In exchange, first base prospect Alfonso Rivas heads to Chicago. There was already an open spot on Oakland’s 40-man roster, so no corresponding move was needed for this new addition.

A’s fans should already be at least slightly familiar with Kemp, who spent most of his career so far with the Houston Astros. The 28-year-old is a left-handed batter whose top skills are defensive versatility and decent plate discipline. He’s played four positions in the majors, including all three outfield spots as well as second base, with just over half his time coming in LF. With the bat, he doesn’t hit for a high average nor any power, but his career rates of 9.3% walks and 16.4% strikeouts are both comfortably better than league average.

A 5th-round draft pick in 2013, Kemp debuted in the majors three years later, eventually playing 239 games for the Astros from 2016-19 before being dealt to the Cubs last July. His best season came in 2018, when he played 97 games (with a career-high 295 plate appearances) and posted an above-average batting line (110 wRC+), buoyed by a strong .351 OBP. He did not repeat that success last summer, between 66 games for Houston and then another 44 for Chicago — he especially struggled in his time with the Cubs (.183 average, with a 46 wRC+).

Kemp, 2019 MLB: .212/.291/.380, 77 wRC+, 8 HR, 8.2% BB, 16.8% Ks

As for his fit on Oakland’s current roster, Kemp checks a few important boxes. His lefty bat increases the balance on a righty-heavy team, and his ability to draw a walk could help a lineup that’s great at hitting homers but not at getting on base ahead of those long balls. On defense, he can cover 2B, where there are several potential candidates but no clear plan at this moment, and where the A’s have publicly stated they were looking to add a lefty hitter this winter. He also has experience in CF — Ramon Laureano and Mark Canha both saw time there in 2019, but they each might be better suited to different outfield spots (RF and LF, respectively).

Contractually, Kemp is still on a minimum salary and will not become eligible for arbitration until at least next winter. He has at least four years of club control remaining, but on the downside he is already out of options so he can’t be sent down and stashed in Triple-A.

The cost of the trade was Rivas, who was the A’s 4th-round pick in 2018. Last winter the first baseman ranked No. 28 on our preseason Community Prospect List, and then followed up that early prospect stock with a solid showing in High-A Stockton last summer. The lefty hitter has an unusual skill set for a first baseman, relying more on contact and plate discipline than power, but he’s been productive in the pros so far and is also considered a good defender.

Rivas, 2019 A+: .283/.383/.408, 123 wRC+, 8 HR, 13.0% BB, 22.2% Ks

After the season, and just after his 23rd birthday, he went on to play in the Arizona Fall League and didn’t miss a beat. In 60 plate appearances there, he batted .306 with seven doubles and 10 walks.

The trade was first reported by Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.

Hot takes

Let’s start with the bad news. If you were hoping to see the A’s make a splash at second base, or even just add an established everyday starter (like Adam Frazier, etc.), then you will be disappointed by this move. Kemp is more in the range of a part-timer or outright bench player, and he’s not going to move the needle particularly far in any direction.

On top of being a modest pickup, he was also decidedly not free to acquire. Rivas only barely cracked our CPL last winter, so he’s not a top prospect by any stretch, but he’s a decent lotto ticket and there’s plenty to like about him. The A’s gave up more than nothing to get Kemp, who is essentially a replacement-level player.

And what does this add to the roster? Oakland already had a massive competition ahead of them at 2B, between three in-house prospects (Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse) plus their recent Rule 5 draft pick (Vimael Machin). Kemp adds to the quantity of that group, but not necessarily the quality, as he has easily the lowest ceiling of any of them but doesn’t bring the reliably high floor of a traditionally “safe” option. He doesn’t even have that much MLB experience, amounting to less than two seasons of work.

Furthermore, his lack of minor league options means the A’s didn’t add any flexibility to their roster. Barreto and Mateo are also out of options, and Machin can’t be sent down as a Rule 5 guy, and there already wasn’t going to be room for all of them, so Kemp’s presence means that yet one more of those guys will have to be squeezed out of the picture and likely out of the organization entirely.

OK, now for the good news.

Kemp does at least make sense on this squad, for the reasons laid out above — he’s a lefty second baseman who can get on base. Not a great one, but he does literally meet those criteria. Machin is the only other lefty in the 2B competition, so Kemp could serve as insurance in case Machin flops in spring training and doesn’t make the cut. There is value to this depth, and to taking every possible chance to find an answer at this wide-open position entering a contending season.

And while giving up Rivas was more than nothing, he might not have had much of a future in this organization. The A’s have budding superstar Matt Olson entrenched at first base, hopefully for several more years to come, so Rivas was probably best cast as a trade chip one way or other. And now he gets to go to Chicago, which was once home to one of his best-case comps in Mark Grace. Our friends at Baseball Trade Values suggest this was technically an overpay by Oakland, but not a huge one.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kemp, though, is just how hard he’s crushed the A’s during his career. It’s been absolutely uncanny how much of a pest he’s been to Oakland, and it’s nice to know that we won’t have to see him in anyone else’s lineup. Here are his career splits, against the league overall and against just the green and gold (updated from when I brought this up back in May):

  • Kemp, vs. MLB: .233/.314/.367, 15 HR, 51 XBH in 749 PAs
  • Kemp, vs. OAK: .258/.347/.530, 3 HR, 10 XBH, in 75 PAs

His OPS is nearly 200 points higher against the A’s, and 20% of his extra-base hits have come against them in just 10% of his plate appearances — his isolated slugging against Oakland is Olson-ish. He had a knack for drawing demoralizing walks from the bottom of Houston’s juggernaut lineup, giving them a free runner ahead of their collection of MVP-caliber hitters.

None of that is necessarily meaningful. Most likely it was just a small-sample fluke, as opposed to anything special about facing A’s pitchers or hitting in the Coliseum. But it was impossible to ignore how often he produced against Oakland, and now there is one fewer A’s Killer on the other 29 teams. For what it’s worth.

At the end of the day, the team now has one more warm body to try out at second base, and/or a useful utilityman who could be a decent fit for the bench. We’ll have to wait and see how everything shakes out during the spring, and I’d bet that even the front office doesn’t yet quite know how that 2B competition will turn out.

Either way, welcome to Oakland, Tony! I’m happy the A’s won’t have to face you anymore. In conclusion, here’s Kemp doing a backflip — now that’s Athletic.