There could have been vacuum in the place typically reserved for the Best Player in Baseball, a figurative empty spot on the mythical plaque, waiting to be engraved.
The Era of Albert Pujols is, by all appearances, over. He has yet to hit a home run, showing his first signs of aging and of not being a machine sent from the past to annihilate an entire race of baseballs. Jacoby Ellsbury dislocated his shoulder. Ryan Braun is fighting for his good name. Other contenders are bunched close, but only one player has separated himself.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have new ownership, a looming billion-dollar TV contract and the second-best record in the National League. But the best, most hopeful thing about one of baseball’s marquee franchises is center fielder Matt Kemp. This winter, Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. About 20 games in, the deal is a bargain.
Kemp has started this season on a different level than any other player. He leads the majors in home runs (10), average (.449), on-base percentage (.513) and slugging (.942). Go back and read those numbers again if you have to. No one would fault a double-take.
Pujols, 32, faces the most extended struggle of his remarkable, future Hall of Fame career in Orange County after signing a 10-year, $250 million contract. His .316 slugging percentage is 11 points lower than his career batting average. Not even Pujols has been immune to the kind of first-year stumble Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford experienced last year after signing monstrous free agent contract. The Angels have to ask if it is a minor hurdle, or a sign that Pujols is no more impervious to aging than any other star.
He has filled the other Southern California team with worry while Kemp, 27, has filled Los Angeles with new hope.
Pujols brought his scowling professionalism to the Angles, who have surprisingly fallen into last place in the American League West. Kemp has brought his graceful effervescence to the Dodgers, who have surged into first place in the National League West shortly after learning a group led by Magic Johnson would take over the team for the embattled Frank McCourt.
For Kemp and the Dodgers, it is all smiles. His ascension began last season, when he finished second in the National League MVP race, which he probably would have won, frankly, if the Dodgers had finished in the playoffs like Braun’s Brewers.
Before the year, Kemp predicted a 50-50 season for himself. He only has one stolen base so far. But under the Southern California sun, he is making anything else seem possible, even a sudden passing of the torch from the last Best Player in Baseball to the next.