Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jeff Kent Retires

One of my favorite MLB players announced his retirement today.

Jeff Kent called it quits after 17 seasons in the majors. Kent played with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I remember when Kent came up with the Blue Jays early in the 1992 season. At the time, Kelly Gruber was ensconced at third base so suddenly there was an unfamiliar face. I remember watching a Jays game in residence during my freshman year at Carleton University. When Kent came up to bat someone said, "Who's Jeff Kent?" Kent probably banged a double off the left field wall. People sat up and took notice.

Now it took awhile for Kent to reach his potential. He was traded later that season to the Mets for David Cone as the Blue Jays were on their way to their first of two World Series championships. Kent, meanwhile, was inconsistent during his five season stint with the Mets. His numbers were decent but he didn't live up to lofty expectations. Kent was traded to the Cleveland Indians in middle of the 1996 season for Carlos Baerga in a trade that didn't work for either team. Kent didn't set the world afire with the Tribe either.

Following the 1996 season, Kent was dealt to the San Francisco Giants along with Julian Tavarez and Jose Vizcaino for Matt Williams. It was not a popular trade in the Bay Area. Williams was a bonafide slugger and a Gold Glove third baseman whereas Kent was an inconsistent hitter and not a particularly great fielder. Sure enough Williams had a great season with the Indians in 1997 playing in the World Series. But Williams was dealt to Arizona the following season. Meanwhile, Kent turned the corner and would play in San Francisco for six seasons.

He drove in 100 or more runs every season in San Francisco. After alternating between second base and third base, Kent was kept at second base by manager Dusty Baker and his defense improved vastly. His best season came in 2000 when he won the National League MVP. He hit .334 with 33 homeruns and 125 RBI. Even Barry Bonds couldn't overshadow him that year. Kent was also an integral part of the 2002 Giants that won the National League championship although they fell short in the World Series against the Angels.

Kent had a complex relationship with Barry Bonds. They disliked each other personally and even came to blows in the dugout in the middle of the 2002 season. Yet when Bonds broke the single season homerun record in 2001 I remember Kent holding Bonds' son Nikolai in his arms as Bonds spoke to the crowd.

Kent left the Giants after the 2002 season to sign a two year contract with the Houston Astros. Kent and Bonds were like oil and water at this point and the Giants top priority at the time was to keep Bonds happy. Dusty Baker left the Giants to manage the Chicago Cubs. Without Baker to stand in between Kent and Bonds he saw the writing on the wall.

After two seasons with the Astros, Kent signed a three year deal with the Dodgers. When Kent drove in 100 plus runs for the eighth time in his career the Dodgers added a year to his contract. However, his productivity declined after 2005. In 2007, when the Dodgers imploded down the stretch, Kent took his younger teammates to task for a lack of hustle. This cost Dodgers manager Grady Little his job. Kent was hurt for much of 2008 although he was productive in limited action. However, Kent raised the ire of Dodgers fans when he said Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully talked too much. Scully had simply said that Kent's production had improved with the presence of Manny Ramirez in the lineup. Taking on Vin Scully is a big no-no. It's like arguing with the Pope. Perhaps the thrill was gone.

Kent finishes his career with a .290 average, 2,461 hits, 377 home runs and 1,518 RBI. Of Kent's homeruns, 355 of them came while playing second base which is the most in major league history. Next on the list is Ryne Sandberg who hit 277 as a second baseman and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Will Jeff Kent end up in Cooperstown? Yes but perhaps not on the first ballot. Although I don't think they'll put him through the ringer like Jim Rice. Kent is the best offensive second baseman in MLB history and was a dominant offensive force in the NL for nearly a decade. Although his defensive play improved over his career he never won a Gold Glove. His last three seasons in the majors were subpar and one could make the case he may have better off to retire earlier.

Of course, Kent wasn't always popular with the media and his teammates and that might impede him. It is also worth noting that in 2008 the Texas-born Kent came out in favor of California's Proposition 8 and donated $15,000 to the Yes forces. I don't know if the membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America are as liberal as the rest of the print media but if they are that too will cost him some votes.

Be that as it may, I consider Jeff Kent a bonafide Hall of Famer and an asset to the game of baseball. I regret that I never saw him play in person but I was able to follow his entire career on TV and immensely enjoyed his contributions as a player.

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