Trading Jeff Kent
Trading Jeff Kent
Â Jeff Kent, like Manny Ramirez, is one of those unusual players whom teams are equally eager to acquire and unload. This, of course, is because of the maddening way in which he combines outstanding power and solid defense with poor leadership and a tendency towards clubhouse strife. Three times in his career heâ€™s been traded; each time, a championship-caliber team was seeking to add a final piece. Once, he was supposed to be that piece, and twice he was dealt to bring it in. In this way, Kent is woven into the narrative of the 1990s above and beyond his contributions on the field. Letâ€™s see how it all played out.
August 27, 1992: The Blue Jays trade Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson to the Mets for pitcher David Cone.
Kent was drafted in the 20th round in 1989â€”that was strike one. Strike two was a seriously unimpressive minor league line in three seasons, to wit, a .257 batting average across three levels, topping out at Double-A Knoxville in 1991. Despite this, he earned a spring training invite in 1992 and managed to make the roster, and a few Kelly Gruber injuries allowed him a good amount of playing time at third base. Again, he was merely mediocre at the plate (.240/.324/.443 in 222 plate appearances), but played above average defense and generally established himself as a solid prospect.
For Toronto, however, Kentâ€™s skill set was thoroughly redundant, with Gruber and Roberto Alomar entrenched at third base and second base respectively. What the Jays really needed was another starting pitcher. The first four starters (Jimmy Key, Jack Morris, Juan Guzman and Todd Stottlemeyre) were strong enough, but the last slot fell to David Wells and Dave Stieb, and neither had acquitted themselves very well (combined 6.04 ERA as starters, with a 9-13 record and .288 batting average against). In a tight AL East race (up just two games on Baltimore on the eve of the trade), the Blue Jays could ill afford a weak link in their rotation. The Mets, meanwhile, were 14 games back in their division, and were looking to retool. For Cone, they picked up not only Kent, but also the promising Thompson, who they hoped would roam their outfield for years to come.
From the Blue Jaysâ€™ perspective, the deal paid immediate dividends. In September, Cone won two games by a score of 1-0 and another 3-1. His ERA in seven starts was 2.65, and hitters managed only a .201 batting average against him. In the ALDS against Oakland, he pitched eight shutout innings in Game 2, and also started the second game of the World Series against the Braves. His overall performance was spotty, but his big games were huge as the Blue Jays captured their first title in franchise history.
After the playoffs, Cone was gone as quickly as heâ€™d come, signing with the Royals in the off-season. Despite the loss, the Jays picked up another crown in 1993, with Pat Hentgen taking Coneâ€™s spot in the rotation.
In New York, Kent earned his first starting job in 1993, playing in 140 games with the lackluster Mets. He hit 21 home runs, tied for tops at his position, and joined Alomar, Carlos Baerga and Craig Biggio as an up-and-coming second baseman. The following two years, his numbers were even better; in 498 career games with the Mets, Kent had a line of .279/.327/.453, with 67 home runs and a 107 OPS+.
This performance, especially the power numbers, attracted the attention of the Indians. There, Baerga had worn out his welcome by reporting to camp in 1996 20 pounds overweight and falling short of his previous numbers.
July 29, 1996: The Mets trade Kent and infielder Jose Vizcaino to the Indians for second baseman Carlos Baerga and infielder Alvaro Espinoza.
The trade was a curious one from the Metsâ€™ standpoint. They were in essentially the same position as they had been three years earlier when they acquired Kent in the first placeâ€”that is, not contendingâ€”yet they made a challenge trade for a player under contract until 1998. The move was soon regretted in New York, as Baerga finished the season batting .193/.253/.301. Not only did he not produce, but he also provided an obstacle for three second base prospects in the system: Fernando ViÃ±a, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Quilvio Veras. In 306 games with the Mets, Baerga put up an OPS+ of 78, and was not re-signed after 1998.
In Cleveland, Kent was stepping into an already potent lineup, featuring the likes of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. He ended up playing mostly first base down the stretch, with Vizcaino at second. The defending pennant winners matched up with Baltimore in the ALDS and were promptly defeated, four games to one. It came as a bitter surprise for the Indians, and Kent was as guilty as any, recording just one hit in eight series at-bats. The talk radio waves buzzed with demands for accountability, and general manager John Hart quickly acquiesced.
November 13, 1996: The Indians trade Kent, Vizcaino, and pitchers Julian Taveras and Joe Roa to the Giants for third baseman Matt Williams and outfielder Trenidad Hubbard.
In Cleveland, this off-season move was greeted with universal acclaim. The Tribe had further bolstered their already fearsome offense with the addition of Williams, arguably the best right-handed slugger in the National League. The move also let the 26-year-old Thome, no wizard with the glove, move to first base. Factor in a late spring trade which sent Kenny Lofton to the Braves for David Justice and Marquis Grissom, and the Indians were poised to power their way to the World Series.
The exuberance in Cleveland was matched only by the uproar by the bay. San Francisco fans felt theyâ€™d been snookered; the sneering Kent was poor compensation for the immensely popular Williams. This anger was probably justified: in his career, Kent had never batted .300, hit 25 home runs, or driven in 100 runs. What is more, Williamsâ€™ departure left star slugger Barry Bonds unprotected in the Giantsâ€™ lineup, and few thought that Kent could fill that void.
Fortunately for Giants fans, they were not long in recanting. Kent posted career highs in hits, home runs, RBIs and walks. Equally importantly, he provided enough protection to allow Bonds to put up another monster season. The Giants were swept in the NLDS by the auction-bought Marlins, but Kent was to become a fixture in several years of success, culminating in a 2002 World Series appearance. It was during his six years with San Francisco that Kent compiled the heart of his Hall of Fame portfolio: .297/.368/.535, with an average of 29 home runs and 114 RBIs each season. In 2000, he was named league MVP after hitting a career-high .334.
In Cleveland, the Indians once again romped through the regular season, putting up 886 runs and 220 homers. After beating the Orioles and Yankees, they met up with the Marlins in the World Series. In the seventh and deciding game, Indians closer Jose Mesa blew a save in the ninth inning, and Edgar Renteria singled in the bottom of the eleventh to send home Craig Counsell and win the series for Florida. Williams, who had hit 31 homers in the regular season, was tremendous in the World Series as well, going 10-26. Fellow newcomer Justice, however, struggled during the series, and the Indians got poor pitching from the usually reliable Orel Hershiser and Charles Nagy.
Looking back on Kentâ€™s career from 1992 to 1997, there are a number of tantalizing what-if questions. Would the Blue Jays have won back-to-back titles with Kent? Surely, his bat would have been useful, but again, there was no place for him in the lineup, and Cone was clutch in his short time with the team. Why did the Mets trade him for the declining Baerga? The 1996 team was a collection of driftwood; by the time they got to the NLCS three years later, only three regulars (Alfonzo, Rey OrdoÃ±ez, and John Franco) remained. And, most hauntingly, would the Indiansâ€™ fortunes have changed with Kent on board? Their 1997 infield would have had Omar Vizquel at short and either Kent at second with Thome at third and Julio Franco at first, or Kent at third with Thome at first and Tony Fernandez at second. Matt Williamsâ€™ production can not be faulted for the World Series loss, but thereâ€™s no way of knowing how Kentâ€™s stellar 1997 season would have fit inâ€”or, indeed, whether he could have had it in Cleveland at all.
As it happened, fans of all four teamsâ€”Toronto, New York, Cleveland and San Franciscoâ€”have Kent to thank or curse for their respective success or failure, all as they see fit. His integral role in the power dynamics of the decade was due not only on the field. Through him, the aspirations and concerns of fans and GMs alike were expressed, resulting in victory parades in some cities (Toronto, Florida) and bitterness in others (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland). When it comes time to vote on his Hall of Fame candidacy, the visceral opinions formed by these three controversial trades will not be easily suppressed, by writers or by the public. Â Such is the game of baseball, and such was the career of one of its most reviled, most talented practitioners, Jeff Kent.