Tony Kemp has been a standout for the Vanderbilt Commodores since he arrived in Nashville back in 2010. Whether it was in left field or at second base, the lightning-quick athlete was a difference maker in the field and at the plate. Now, one month after being named the SEC Player of the Year, he's decided to take the next step in his career and sign with the Houston Astros.
Kemp was drafted by the Astros to start off the fifth round of the 2013 MLB Draft. His college stock reached an all-time high this season. The rangy infielder batted .391, reached base 47 percent of the time, and earned a "one-man rally" moniker for his proficiency as a base stealer (34) and run scorer (64 in 66 games). The Tennessee native was the best leadoff batter in the NCAA this spring, and his ability to spray the ball to all fields and deal with some of the SEC's best pitchers made him an invaluable member of one of the best Vandy teams that Tim Corbin has ever seen.
Before adding needed depth to the infield, Kemp was also a standout left fielder. His speed and vision, combined with Vandy's shallow outfield in left, helped prevent extra base hits and bail out pitchers with some spectacular plays. Kemp's instincts on the basepaths helped turn doubles into triples and put a runner in scoring position at times when Vanderbilt needed it the most. In short, the Astros are getting an instinctively smart baseball player who understands the game and has the tools to capitalize on that.
While the diminutive infielder (5'7", 165 lbs) will never be mistaken for a power hitter (one home run in three years at Vanderbilt), he can get the ball into gaps and squeeze out extra bases when needed. Astros' website Crawfish Boxes has called him a faster version of Jose Altuve, but another lofty comparison could be the Minnesota version of Chuck Knoblauch. Before gunning groundouts into the stands at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch was a run scoring machine for the Twins who stole 62 bases in 1997 and provided solid defense up the middle. Kemp won't be able to provide the pop that Knoblauch brought, but his ability to get on base could make him equally valuable if he continues to develop as a player.
Kemp will be missed at Hawkins Field. The Nashville native was a clubhouse leader who helped drag this team from a miserable start in 2012 and rally them into the NCAA Tournament. Though he wasn't as potent in the postseason this year, he was still the last player any opposing coach wanted to see at the plate with the game on the line. As Vanderbilt's first First Team All-American since 2007, replacing him will be a herculean task for head coach Tim Corbin.
How do you replace a guy whose presence at first base was essentially a coin flip? Who can the Commodores turn to when they need someone to get from first to third with two outs in a tight game? That's what the Astros are getting in Tony Kemp. While he'll need some time to develop, the Centennial alum has always been a quick study on the field.
Kemp excelled on the field because it never looked like a chore for him. No player on this team exuded the same kind of child-like exuberance for the game that he did, and it showed with every walk he earned and every extra base he legged out. It's sad for Vandy fans that he'll be leaving with one year of eligibility left, but it was the right thing to do. Now, some lucky fans around the Astros' minor league programs are going to get to witness what we saw in Nashville for the past three seasons.
Good luck, TK. And thanks for picking Vanderbilt.