The Braves found a creative way to rid themselves of Matt Kemp while filling two of their offseason needs when they traded the veteran outfielder to the Dodgers in a five-player swap Saturday in exchange for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, right-hander Brandon McCarthy, lefty Scott Kazmir, infielder Charlie Culberson and $4.5 million.
Gonzalez, who’s owed $21.5 million in 2016, was immediately designated for assignment, as agreed up by the Braves in return for him agreeing to waive his no-trade clause, clearing the way for the deal to happen.
The Braves got out from under the $36 million they owed Kemp over the last two years of his contract, while opening a potential corner-outfield spot for prospect Ronald Acuna, the top-rated prospect in the Braves’ talent-rich farm system and Baseball America’s minor league player of the year. Acuna turns 20 on Monday.
“We’ve been looking to move an outfielder for a while and we had been exploring a lot of different things,” said Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who had discussions with the Dodgers before and during last week’s Winter Meetings, with talks picking up momentum Wednesday.
The trade allows the Dodgers to remain under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold by moving the salaries of Gonzalez, Kazmir ($16 million) and McCarthy ($10 million), who are all entering the final year of their contracts.
Gonzalez was expendable for the Dodgers after getting hurt last season and displaced by Cody Bellinger, who hit 39 homers and was the National League Rookie of the Year.
The Dodgers sent the Braves $4.5 million to cover the difference in the amount between the $47.5 million in salaries that L.A. dumped and the $43 million that Kemp was owed over the next two seasons in an eight-year, $160 million contract he signed with the Dodgers following the 2011 season -- three Kemp trades and many injuries ago for the stocky left fielder.
The Braves owed $36 million of that Kemp amount and were getting the other $7 million from the Dodgers via the Padres as part of a 2016 trade that brought Kemp to Atlanta (he had been previously traded from L.A. to San Diego).
Saturday’s trade gives the Braves more financial flexibility for next winter, when baseball’s free-agent class will be deep and the Atlanta can more realistically expect to be in position to field a potential playoff-contending team for 2019.
Kemp hit a respectable .276 with 19 homers and a .781 OPS in 2017, but after a power-surging start he was slowed by repeated hamstring injuries and hit .245 with a .685 OPS in 81 games from May 25 through the end of the season.
Anthopoulos was a Dodgers vice president for the past two seasons and knew the players involved well. He said he expects McCarthy, 34, to be in the starting rotation and be the veteran innings-eater they sought to add this winter.
Anthopoulos praised light-hitting Culberson, saying the Georgia native plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop, is terrific in the clubhouse and will likely be the defensively strong backup shortstop/utility infielder the Braves sought to fill this winter. He has big-league experience at every infield position and left field.
The Braves might still look to add a third baseman and strengthen the bullpen, Anthopoulos said, though he didn’t characterize those as priorities.
Moving Kemp now was a priority, as the Braves wanted to do it before teams had filled out their rosters and financial planning.
It rids the Braves of an awkward situation in left field -- the former Gold Glove winner is injury-prone and a poor defender at this stage of his career -- and assures the Braves will have a spot for Acuna when he’s ready.
Anthopoulos wanted to get better defensively this winter, stating last week that was an overriding priority, and with the subtraction of Kemp and addition of Acuna at some point in 2018, they will be much better defensively. Also, Culberson provides a strong glove off the bench and allows the Braves to use Johan Camargo at third base if they choose.
Acuna can play all the outfield positions and is likely to compete for a spot on the opening-day roster, unless the Braves decide to keep him in the minors for a little more seasoning or, as will be speculated if it happens, to assure they have an extra year of Acuna control before free agency.
“When he’s ready to go, we’re going to look to make room for him,” Anthopoulos said Saturday. “Certainly a move like this won’t hurt.”
The Braves will have four years of contractual control of Culberson, while the others are contracts they acquired expire after the 2018 season.
McCarthy, 34, was 6-4 with a 3.98 ERA in 19 games (16 starts) for the Dodgers last season, missing about half the season for a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder, knee tendinitis and a recurring finger blister, but returning late in the season with his 94-mph fastball intact and a new slider to go with it. He was on the Dodgers’ World Series roster.
“We have a lot of young arms,” Anthopoulos said. “We don’t know that they’re all going to necessarily be able to go 200 innings. We need that depth. It’s going to be really important.”
The Braves aren’t likely to pursue another veteran starter as things currently stand, because they want to make sure their own pitching prospects have spots to compete for and aren’t blocked when they’re ready.
McCarthy is 63-72 with a 4.15 ERA in 240 games (182 starts) over parts of 12 seasons. The 6-foot-7 right-hander has been limited to just 155 2/3 combined innings over the past three seasons, after pitching a career-high 200 innings with the Yankees and Diamondbacks in 2014.
He had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and missed most of the 2016 season while recovering.
Kazmir, 33, missed the entire 2017 season due to a hip injury and arm fatigue. The Braves aren’t counting on anything from the three-time former All-Star, but Anthopoulos said he spoke with him and that Kazmir was optimistic with the way he’s felt in his offseason program.
Culberson has just a .231 average and .595 OPS in 197 games (443 plate appearances) over parts of five major league seasons. He went 2-for-13 in 15 games for Los Angeles last season, after hitting .299 with a homer and .697 OPS in 67 at-bats for the Dodgers in 2016.
A first-round draft pick by the Giants out of Calhoun High School in 2007, Culberson was traded to the Rockies in 2012 and signed with the Dodgers as a free agent in 2015.
The Braves still might look to improve at third base and add to the bullpen, Anthopoulos said. But Saturday’s move goes a long way in checking off boxes on the team’s to-do list.
Anthopoulos is quite familiar with the players coming from L.A., having served as Dodgers vice president of baseball operations for before being hired last month as Braves GM and executive vice president.
Kemp signed his $160 million contract with the Dodgers after his career-best 2011 season when he was NL MVP runner-up and hit .324 with 39 homers, 126 RBIs, 40 stolen bases and a .986 OPS.
His spate of injuries began the following season and Kemp was traded to the Padres in December 2014. He was traded again to the Braves before the July 2016 deadline in another bad-contract swap when former Braves GM John Coppolella was desperate to dump Hector Olivera, who had been acquired in an ill-advised trade with … yes, the Dodgers.