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Starting Nine: Tony Kemp making waves

All Tony Kemp has done since he was drafted is produce, but will it translate to the major league level?

Tim De Block

Minor league statistics can be misleading. While they certainly don't mean everything, they do matter to a certain extent. There aren't many bad players who hit .300; just like there aren't many good players that hit .200. However, watching players on a daily basis is always a better idea than just looking at the box score.

Here at TCB, we certainly have writers that know prospects, and especially the Astros, but that doesn't mean we have eyes on each game, each night. And that's where the statistics come in, and perhaps no player currently in the Astros farm system is more of a statistical darling than Tony Kemp. Houston's fifth round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2013 has continued to rake throughout his professional career.

Through Monday's games, Kemp is hitting .315/.409/..417 in 268 professional games, 121 of which have been played at AA or higher. His 2015 season has been even more impressive with a line of .361/.452/.427 with 11 doubles plus one triple, one home run and 21 stolen bases. Oh, and he's walked 40 times and struck out just 30.

Better yet, Kemp, who was drafted as a second baseman, has added to his versatility by playing the outfield. He's looked quite good doing it too.

Clearly, these are all very good things. But what does it mean for Kemp's future? Should he be called up now?

Today's Starting Nine:

What are the realistic expectations for Tony Kemp as a major leaguer? And in what way, if any, will he contribute to the Astros in 2015?

David Coleman

First of all, let's separate Tony Kemp the player from where he was drafted. It's incredibly hard to find bona fide major leaguers outside the first round. Heck, it's hard to find them anywhere in the draft.

But, the deeper you get into each June's draft, the harder it is to find players who make it to The Show.

Kemp was taken in the fifth round in 2013. In that fifth round, seven players are currently at Double-A. Three are still in rookie ball and one is in independent ball. One of those seven in Double-A has already been traded. Another has been terrible. Besides Kemp, there are only three other players who have shown enough at that highest level to hint that they might be major leaguers. (Buck Farmer already made it to the majors, but was horrible).

From 2006 to 2011, there have only been seven players drafted in the fifth round who totaled more than five bWAR. Two are pitchers (Chris Archer, Jake Arrieta, Daniel Hudson), two are first basemen (Crush Davis, Brandon Belt) and one's Mookie Betts.

My point, I guess, is that it's incredibly hard to find a productive player in that round or later. So, realistic expectations are for Kemp to not even make the majors. If he does, realistic expectations are for him to not put up even five bWAR over his first five seasons.

As Bud Norris once told us, though, players are not numbers and we can't treat them like integers.

Tony Kemp has been mashing. He's got a little defensive value. He's got the makeup to maximize his tools and the drive to get him to the majors one day. He doesn't have a ton of power, but he hits enough line drives to make up for it.

What's his ceiling? Will he be better than Marwin Gonzalez? Can he win a starting spot on this team? Chances are that he can't.

The fun part of baseball, though, is getting proven wrong. It's a pretty magical ride when a player like Jose Altuve gets a chance to prove traditional prospect wisdom wrong. It can be spectacular to watch a guy like J.D. Martinez make good, even if it is in Detroit.

Tony Kemp may not make an impact on the Astros at any point, but I certainly wouldn't bet against him. Because of the 40-man rules, I'd be surprised if he made any kind of big league contribution in 2015. Then again, I'd enjoy the heck out of that surprise.

Matthew Hall

I love the guy and root for his success. I look forward to watching him as an Astro. He's going to be exciting and fun to watch and by all accounts will be a great addition to any locker room.

I feel very confident Kemp will contribute at the MLB level but at the same time, unfortunately, I doubt he sticks as an everyday player either with the Astros or elsewhere. The relative lack of size and power suggest a low ceiling.
Many of the same things could have been said about Altuve but that is just an anecdote, after all is said and done.

David Spradley

I feel like 1 of 2 scenarios is going to happen to Tony Kemp. Either he continues to be a reliable, productive hitter when he reaches the ML level, with a little bit of power being the last thing he develops as a tool; or he's going to become the next version of David Eckstein.

I would love it of course if Kemp becomes the former, but there's a higher likelihood he becomes the latter. Still, for a guy who has a career .409 OBP in the minors and hits for average he has the offensive tools that the current Astros lineup is lacking. I'd be interested in seeing him play a few games in the majors and seeing if he can shore up the Astros' lineup.

Brian Stevenson

The draft is such a crapshoot that I don't place a lot of emphasis on where guys went. Daz Cameron was clearly a top-ten-pick talent, but went in the second round; does that mean he's less likely to reach the Majors? J.D. Martinez was a 20th round pick. We got Daniel Mengden several rounds later than he wouldn't have gone if not for injury and signability concerns. People took one look at Jose Altuve and laughed him off, even the Astros at first; he had to practically beg to just be given a passing glance.

Evaluating talent can be hard, and even if you have a bead on a guy one time when you see him, a few months later, he can have made some adjustments, fixed mechanics, added some muscle or something else, and can look like a guy with a totally different outlook. So I prefer to look at numbers, most of the time. The numbers say Kemp is a Major Leaguer. Maybe not a starter, but a Major Leaguer. His range in center field doesn't seem to be in question anymore, and it never was at second base. He's hit a lot, he draws a lot of walks, he's a good base-stealer (and base runner, in general)...the only thing he doesn't do is hit for power. But really, if he did, he'd he a four-tool player who had mashed in the high minors, and no one would be questioning his future. So instead he's a three-tool guy who has mashed in the high minors, and we're wondering if he has a future? Doesn't add up for me. And that's not to mention his Altuve/Springer/Correa "clubhouse guy/intangibles/chemistry/#want/'IT' factor" stuff, whatever label you want to throw out there. The Astros have shown a propensity for those guys that you might not expect from an analytics-driven organization, and I'm not going to bet against them without good reason. Kemp hitting like .350 in his first look at AAA pitching isn't giving me said reason.

Curtis Leister

I'm very glad this is the Starting Nine, because I put a comp on Kemp in the minor league comment section yesterday morning and I'm quite proud of it (humblebrag).

Realistically, Tony Kemp = Skip Schumaker.

Schumaker had a nice, solid career as a up-the-middle utility guy in St. Louis, and it's no coincidence that a similar player to Skip is now in the Astros system. Schumaker didn't have otherworldly statistics career wise; his 92 OPS+ is below average, so he didn't hit for much power. However, a lot of good things from Schumaker that I think will translate to Kemp- .280 career hitter, probably in line with what Kemp can do in the majors, solid on-base numbers throughout Skip's career, including three straight years near .360 OBP, and some sneaky-good power results, including one season with 34 doubles, and of course the positional versatility at 2B and CF that Kemp has experience with.

I'm not trying to pigeon-hole Kemp directly into Schumaker's career; comps are generally not what you want to do when evaluating a player, but this one made too much sense to me. Schumaker's best year came in 2008 when he hit .302/.359/.406 in nearly 600 at-bats. Though I'm not optimistic enough to think Kemp puts those numbers up for many years, I am optimistic that Kemp can do that maybe a handful of times in his career, while adding a little more speed to boot. The fact that Kemp doesn't have a certain starting role in the near future may also help him- his versatility, hitting potential and speed would be a great addition off the bench, and maybe better served as a frequent utility man than a guy who starts six days a week with that diverse set of above-average skills.


Tony Kemp was my favorite draft pick in 2013, and he continues to be one my favorite prospects. (Note that "favorite prospect" isn't the same thing as best prospect.) So, I'm a little biased.

I don't have a real question about Kemp's ability to play in the major leagues. His wRC+ in A+, AA (2014), AA (2015), and AAA (2015): 141, 135, 154, 147. He is that unusual high OBP, high walk rate, high contact rate, low power hitter who profiles as an ideal lead off guy. He may not be a future all star, but he could be a starter or solid contributor. Luis Castillo, who is pretty much the same type of player, had a long career as a starting 2d baseman and lead off hitter with that profile. (I was unhappy when the Mets outbid the Astros for Castillo for his last free agent contract---the Astros ended up with Kaz Matsui.) Jace Peterson is a rookie 2d baseman for the Braves (acquired in the Upton trade) who has a similar profile and performed almost as well as Kemp in AA and AAA (wRC+ of 128 and 131). It's an early and small sample, but he has been a pleasant surprise with a wRC+ of 110 in the majors and 1.9 WAR so far this year. Kemp may have more speed and a tad less power, but it wouldn't surprise me if he could put up similar numbers. When people talk about Kemp as a slap hitter, I understand why they say it, but so far this season, Kemp has maintained a line drive rate in the 25% range.

Although I really like Kemp's profile, I don't see a role for him on this year's Astros team, unless Altuve and/or Marisnick were to be injured or out for a considerable time. He doesn't have the arm for 3d base or shortstop, which means that he is limited as a utility player. Since he is blocked by Altuve at 2d base, Kemp's best shot at a significant role with the Astros in the future may be CF. But the Astros have a lot of prospects who will compete for an outfield position. Can the Astros fashion a utility player slot for 2d base and CF next season? Maybe or maybe not—depending on how the roster shakes out next year. Could he be traded? Again, maybe. Perhaps he is part of a package for a bigger piece, like Peterson whom the Padres included in the trade to acquire Upton. But if Kemp continues to rake in AAA, he will be difficult for the Astros to ignore.

Irish Pete

I went to Fangraphs and did what I always do when discussing unique players like Tony Kemp. I filtered players for 2nd basemen and center fielders with a BB rate greater than 10%, K rate less than 14%, and an ISO less than .100 in the last 30 years. Some of the top names this turned up on the 2nd basemen list were Willie Randolph, Luis Castillo, Tom Herr, and Jose Oquendo. There were several other Role 6 type 2nd basemen also on that list. The centerfield list is much shorter: Brett Butler, Otis Nixon, John Cangelosi, and Gerald Young.

I was somewhat encouraged after looking at these filtered lists because it suggests that Kemp's floor is still that of a very productive role player. However, he could be Luis Castillo as clack suggested.

One thing that I think is slightly undersold is Kemp's base stealing ability. He has 83 stolen bases in 268 minor league games. That's 50 steals per 162 games. Even if that number is knocked down to 30-40 because of the better catchers in the bigs, that will still be quite valuable.

Lastly, his makeup makes me want to err on predicting that he will finish out a lot closer to his ceiling than his floor. Is there a spot for him on a contending Astros team? I don't know. Could he be a CF platoon/rest Altuve bat? Maybe. Its just hard to project him with this current situation in Houston ever cracking this roster and becoming a regular, but I certainly hope he does.

Chris Perry

Heavens to murgatroyd. I don't know what to make of Tony Kemp. I've heard he plays super hard. I see that he takes a lot of walks. I see that he doesn't strike out. I see his.358/.457/.420 line in Double A. I see by the highlights that he has good range in the outfield because of good instincts.

But I also see that unsightly .062 ISO. That's 8th lowest in all of AA (under 24 years old and more than 200 PA...sample of 72 players). I see that he has the highest BABIP in that entire sample, at .416. I see that he only plays outfield (a position the Astros are deep at in all levels of the farm) and 2B (obvious blockage there).

And I don't know what to think.

Kemp has elite contact skills, and he plays hard. But what good are elite contact skills if you have a very low (comparable) rate of hitting balls out of the infield, and don't have the elite speed to beat out a high percentage of grounders?

I think Kemp will be an excellent utility player, like Jose Vizcaino was for most of his career. Not enough power to be a strong everyday regular, but can start in a pinch if there is an injury at several positions on the field. His apparent inability to play SS or 3B hurts that role though.

So I still don't know what to think.

Tyler Rosser

Well I didn't answer the question at all in my last response. I like the Kemp to Skip Schumaker & Luis Castillo comps. He's going to hit for a decent average, he's going to walk some, and he's going to have an abysmal ISO. He might even steal a decentt amount of bases. Unfortunately he's blocked by better players, and I don't expect him to ever contribute as an everyday player in an Astros uniform. If he could play short he would be the perfect utility man, but as of now I don't think he can.

I think we trade him while his value is really high. That's what I think. I see a player that has absolutely no room on the major league roster. Altuve is going nowhere, and the outfield is crowded with Springer, Tucker, Domingo, Marisnick, Aplin, Phillips, and Fisher. I think he can be a league average second baseman and a below average outfielder at the major league level.

So let's trade him while he's making spectacular plays in the outfield and hitting for an absurd average in the minors.