Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Jeff Kent

There have been countless players who were drafted by the Mets or made their major league debuts wearing orange and blue.  Some of these players became very successful in New York (Tom Seaver, David Wright), while others saw their careers fizzle once they made it to the majors (Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson).

There have also been quite a few players who weren't necessarily drafted by the Mets, but established themselves as major leaguers in New York.  However, some of these players fell short of expectations and were later shipped off to another team, becoming stars for their new employers.  One such player is Jeff Kent.

In 1992, the Mets acquired Kent from Toronto in a much-maligned trade for David Cone.  Cone went on to win the World Series that year as a Blue Jay, then won a ring for each of his other four fingers as a member of the Yankees.  Jeff Kent, on the other hand, never got to experience a winning season in New York.

Although Kent was producing offensive numbers the Mets had never seen before at the second base position, he wasn't about to replace David Cone in the hearts of Mets fans.  Couple that with the fact that Kent was a loner in a city where no one is ever left alone and you have the recipe for a future trade.  And that's exactly what happened four years after the Mets first acquired Kent.  This time, a change in scenery did wonders for Kent's career.

Jeff Kent's cap didn't fit him in New York, just as New York wasn't a good fit for Jeff Kent.

Jeffrey Franklin Kent was not a top prospect when he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1989 June amateur draft.  Drafted as a shortstop in the 20th round, Kent was a good, but not great, prospect.  From 1989 to 1991, Kent showed decent pop in the minors, collecting 80 doubles and 41 homers.  He also showed he could steal a base or two, swiping 47 bags.  However, he had a penchant for striking out (283 Ks in 1,160 at-bats) and combined to hit .256 during those three seasons.

Despite his shortcomings at the plate, Kent was invited to spring training with the Blue Jays in 1992.  A torrid spring allowed Kent to make the team, even though he didn't have a regular position to play.  After being drafted as a shortstop, Kent played mostly second base and third base in the minors.  But Kent was blocked at each position at the major league level by two Gold Glove-winning All-Stars in Roberto Alomar and Kelly Gruber.  Kent also dabbled a little at first base but was blocked there by future batting champion John Olerud.

Kent played sparingly during his rookie season in Toronto, starting 52 of the team's first 126 games.  The ample bench time dashed Kent's confidence at the plate, as the infielder was held to a .240 batting average in 192 at-bats.  With the Blue Jays trying to win the AL East, they weren't about to give a rookie extended playing time.  At the same time, they needed another arm in the rotation if they wanted to make a serious run at the World Series, a place they had never been even though they had won three division titles in seven years.  Enter the New York Mets.

In 1991, the Mets completed their first losing season in eight years, causing them to retool their roster with former All-Stars.  Gone were most of the players from the mid-to-late '80s teams, replaced by veterans such as Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen.  But when those players didn't help the Mets return to prominence, the team realized that it had spent too much money and had gotten nothing in return.  Therefore, the front office decided that if a player's contract was about to expire, especially a player who was due to earn a large sum of money in free agency, that player was going to be traded.  One of the casualties of that new edict was David Cone.

In his five-plus seasons with the Mets, Cone had become one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League.  He became only the fourth pitcher in franchise history to post a 20-win season in 1988 and won two league strikeout titles in 1990 and 1991.  In 1992, as September approached and postseason rosters were due to be set, Cone was gunning for his third consecutive strikeout crown.  But he was also gunning for a big payday as a free agent, and the Mets were not about to dole out another huge contract while the team was in the midst of another losing season.  Cone never got to win that third National League strikeout crown, as he was traded to Toronto for Jeff Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson.

The Coneheads at Shea Stadium were not happy with the deal, as their favorite son was going north of the border for two players who weren't on anyone's radar.  Kent didn't help things either.  He never went out of his way to endear himself to the fans and he also didn't earn the respect of his teammates, especially when he didn't go along with the rookie hazing that has become a tradition in baseball clubhouses.  Kent raised a ruckus in the clubhouse when his clothes were taken from him and replaced with apparel only a rookie's mother could love.  Kent went on to say:

"I paid my rookie dues in Toronto.  I feel I have endured my embarrassments, my punishment.  I felt I was being taken advantage of.  They wanted to go overboard.  I stuck up for myself.  I won't be pushed around."

Ordinarily, it would be a good thing to hear a player say that he won't be anyone's patsy.  But normally, that player is referring to someone on an opposing team, not a teammate who is sharing locker space with him.  Needless to say, Jeff Kent wasn't the most popular player in the clubhouse after making those remarks.  Kent also wasn't becoming a fan favorite at Shea Stadium, as he batted .239 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 113 at-bats following the trade.

The 1993 season saw Kent finally establish himself as a major leaguer.  Kent set team records for second baseman by blasting 21 homers and driving in 80 runs.  But although he was hitting with power, he did not have very good plate discipline (88 Ks, 30 BB).  Kent was also a horrible fielder.  He led the league in errors by a second baseman (18) despite playing only 127 games at the position.  Still, it was hard to get on him for his defense, especially when he was becoming one of the team's most productive hitters.

In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, Kent led the Mets in batting average (.292), hits (121), doubles (24), triples (5) and RBIs (68).  He also hit 14 home runs while playing 107 games at second base.  But that wasn't the only thing he had 14 of.  Once again, Kent played atrocious defense, making 14 errors at second base to tie for the league lead with the Marlins' Bret Barberie.  But hey, at least he could still hit, right?

After two seasons of good hitting and poor fielding, Kent finally had a letdown at the plate in 1995.  And once he started to struggle as a hitter, all of his other flaws became that much more evident.  In 1994, Kent was one of the best hitters in baseball with runners in scoring position, posting a .385 average (40-for-104) in those situations.  Just a year later, he was one of the worst, batting a miserable .199 (27-for-136) in those pressure-packed at-bats.

As a result, Kent saw drops in his overall batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.  He also had fewer doubles, triples and RBIs despite playing in 18 more games than he did in 1994.  Not by coincidence, fans finally started to notice that he couldn't play a lick at second base (even though he made only ten errors in 1995) and started too rain boos on Kent from every level at Shea Stadium.  The Mets also took notice and by 1996, Kent was the team's starting third baseman.

Jeff Kent's bubble had already burst at second base.  In 1996, his career as a Met popped as well.

The 1995 Mets finished the season strongly, going a league-best 34-18 over their last 52 games.  But the 1996 squad struggled out of the gate, losing ten of their first 14 games.  By mid-May, the Mets were already facing a double-digit deficit in the NL East standings.  Despite the career years being posted by players such as Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, the Mets fell out of playoff contention before the All-Star Break.  Although most of the team's struggles were caused by the failures of the much-hyped Generation K pitching triumvirate, Jeff Kent received some of the blame as well.

Through early June, Kent was hitting .257 and his on-base percentage was hovering around .300.  Although Kent had hit 20+ home runs in two of his previous three seasons, he had only managed five round-trippers in his first 58 games and had a low RBI total (22) through June 7.  And this was from a player who spent most of May and June hitting fourth or fifth in the lineup.  Kent also did not adjust very well to his new position, committing 21 errors at the hot corner in only 89 games.  (Houston's Sean Berry led all National League third basemen with 22 errors, but he played 43 more games at the position than Kent.)

By the All-Star Break, it was clear that the Mets were going to be sellers instead of buyers at the trade deadline.  It was also clear that Jeff Kent had worn out his welcome in New York.  He was a good hitter, but was not very patient at the plate.  In four-plus seasons as a Met, Kent drew a mere 110 walks and struck out 346 times.  That and his inability to handle the media, his teammates and the city made it easy for the Mets to part ways with Kent, which they did on July 29 when they sent him and Jose Vizcaino to Cleveland for three-time All-Star Carlos Baerga and veteran infielder Alvaro Espinoza.

Espinoza played well as a Met, batting .306 in 48 games before signing with the Seattle Mariners as a free agent in 1997.  But Baerga, who averaged 19 HR and 97 RBIs as an Indian from 1992 to 1995, was a disappointment in New York, managing a total of 18 HR and 116 RBIs in 2½ seasons as a Met.  Jeff Kent managed to do a heck of a lot more.

After playing in 39 games with the Indians and getting his first taste of the postseason (Kent went 1-for-8 in Cleveland's four-game ALDS loss to the Baltimore Orioles), Kent was traded to the San Francisco Giants in a six-player deal that netted Cleveland perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner Matt Williams.  With the Mets, Kent hit between guys like Carl Everett, Rico Brogna and Joe Orsulak.  As a Giant, Kent hit behind Barry Bonds and his .446 on-base percentage and in front of J.T. Snow and his career-high 28 HR and 104 RBIs.  Needless to say, Kent blossomed as a hitter in his new environment.

In 1997, Kent set career highs across the board, slamming 29 homers and driving in 121 runs.  He also collected 38 doubles and scored 90 runs.  Kent accomplished this despite a .250 batting average and 133 strikeouts.  By 1998, low batting averages and high strikeout rates had become a thing of the past.

In his second year with the Giants, Kent's power numbers continued to impress (37 doubles, 31 HR, 128 RBI).  But he had a marked improvement as a hitter, raising his batting average 47 points to .297, while striking out 23 fewer times than he did in 1997.  One year later, Kent became an All-Star for the first time, finishing the year with his third consecutive 100-RBI season and his first 40-double campaign.

Going into the 2000 season, Jeff Kent had already completed three phenomenal years in San Francisco.  Any one of those seasons could have been considered a career year for most players, especially for a middle infielder.  But the 1997 to 1999 campaigns were just a springboard for what Kent achieved in 2000.

Kent finished the year with a .334 batting average and .424 on-base percentage.  He also led the National League with 81 extra-base hits, collecting 41 doubles, seven triples and 33 home runs, while scoring 114 runs and driving in 125.  For his efforts, Kent was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player and earned his first Silver Slugger Award as the Giants went on to win the NL West crown with a league-best 97 wins.  Kent was in the playoffs for the third time in five seasons, but this time he was going to be facing the Mets.

After dropping the first game to the Giants in San Francisco, the Mets came back to win the next three games to take the NLDS in four games.  New York held the Giants to a .205 batting average in the series, but had a tough time figuring out Jeff Kent.  Kent batted .375 in the NLDS, leading the Giants with six hits and three runs scored.  He also produced the only hit in Bobby Jones' series-clinching one-hit shutout.

It was more of the same for Kent in 2001 (.298, 49 doubles, 22 HR, 106 RBI) and 2002 (.313, 42 doubles, 37 HR, 108 RBI).  In the latter season, Kent finally earned his first trip to the World Series, a hard-fought seven-game loss to the Anaheim Angels.  Kent hit three home runs in the Fall Classic.  He also scored six runs and led the team with seven runs batted in.  But Kent and teammate Barry Bonds (.471, four homers) couldn't prevent the Angels from taking Games 6 and 7, sending the Giants home without a World Series title.  Kent had fallen short of his goal to win a championship and was not going to get another chance to reach that goal in San Francisco.

Although Kent had had six incredibly productive seasons in San Francisco, the same problems that got him shipped out of New York in 1996 caused the Giants to let him walk as a free agent.  First, Kent lied to the team about a wrist injury he suffered in spring training, claiming it was caused while he was washing his truck when in reality, it happened while he was riding his motorcycle.  Second, he got into a dugout scuffle with Barry Bonds, who was the face of the franchise at the time.  Both incidents contributed greatly in the Giants' decision not to re-sign Kent.  Two months after Kent watched the Angels celebrate their World Series title, he signed a two-year, $18.2 million contract to play for the Houston Astros.

Injuries caused Kent to miss a month of action prior to the All-Star Break in 2003.  But he was still quite productive when he was healthy enough to play.  He finished his first year in Houston with a .297 average, 39 doubles, 22 homers and 93 RBIs.  However, the month he missed due to tendinitis in his left wrist caused him to finish under 100 RBIs for the first time since 1996.  It also dealt a serious blow to the Astros' playoff hopes.  Houston went 12-11 during Kent's time on the disabled list.  The team was 13 games over .500 when Kent was able to start.  Kent's injury was a major reason why the Astros failed to make the playoffs in 2003, as Houston finished one game behind the Chicago Cubs for the National League Central division title.

Kent started a new triple digit RBI streak in 2004, batting .289 with 27 HR and 107 RBIs for the Astros.  But this time Kent did not spend any time on the disabled list.  And when Houston needed a miracle finish to avoid falling short of the playoffs for a second straight season, Kent carried them to the promised land.

Former Mets Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino celebrate while Met-hating umpire Angel Hernandez looks on.  Shoot me now.

Going into the final week of the regular season, Houston's record stood at 85-70.  They were in third place in the National League wild card race, two games behind the Giants and 2½ games behind the Cubs.  But the Astros went on a tear, winning their last seven games to finish one game ahead of the Giants and three games in front of Chicago. 

Although Houston had MVP candidates Lance Berkman (.308, 1 HR, 4 RBI during the season-ending seven-game winning streak) and Carlos Beltran (.267, 0 HR, 2 RBI during the streak), it was Jeff Kent's bat that propelled the team during its run to the wild card.  Kent hit .444 (12-for-27) during the season's final week.  He slammed four homers (three of which gave Houston the lead), drove in eight runs and scored eight times.  Kent's RBI single in the regular season finale proved to be the winning run in the Astros' wild card-clinching victory.

Houston fell one win short of their first World Series appearance, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.  But Kent did all he could to help the team make it to a seventh game, producing five extra-base hits (including a walk-off homer in Game 5) and seven RBIs in the series.  Once again, Kent bolted for a new team as soon as his contract expired, this time ending up in Los Angeles.

Kent had a productive first season as a Dodger in 2005, batting .289 with 36 doubles, 29 homers and 105 RBIs in 149 games.   But that would be the 37-year-old Kent's last great year in the major leagues.

In 2006, Kent had his least productive season since his final year in New York, collecting only 14 HR and 68 RBIs, while batting .292.  When Kent posted those exact numbers for the Mets in 1994, they were considered to be outstanding.  But they were considered subpar for a player who had already produced numerous 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons.  The only thing that wasn't subpar for Kent in 2006 was his performance in the postseason.  Just as he had done six years earlier as a member of the Giants, Kent took apart Mets pitching in the NLDS, batting .615 (8-for-13) in the series.  But once again, his exploits at the plate were not enough to defeat his former team, as the Mets swept Los Angeles to advance to the NLCS.  Kent did, however, take part in one of the most bizarre plays in the series in Game 1, when he and teammate J.D. Drew were both tagged out at home on the same play by Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca.

"Just your routine double play."

Kent played two more injury-riddled seasons in Los Angeles, averaging 16 HR and 69 RBIs in 2007 and 2008, before playing his final game in the big leagues in (you guessed it) a postseason loss.  The Dodgers advanced to the NLCS in 2008, but fell to the eventual World Series champion Phillies in five games.  Kent ended his career by going 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in the NLCS loss.

Jeff Kent was never supposed to accomplish much in the major leagues.  If he had, he wouldn't have been bypassed by every team until the Blue Jays selected him in the 20th round of the 1992 amateur draft.  But he proved the naysayers wrong, becoming one of the best hitting second basemen of all time.

Kent finished his 17-year career with 2,461 hits, which included 560 doubles and 377 home runs.  Kent's 351 homers as a second baseman (he hit 26 at other positions) make him the all-time home run leader at the position.  He also scored 1,320 runs and collected 1,518 RBIs.  Kent was a five-time All-Star, won four Silver Slugger Awards and received MVP votes in seven different seasons, which includes four top ten finishes and the 2002 National League MVP Award.

During a nine-year stretch from 1997 to 2005, Kent was one of the most productive hitters in baseball.  An average Kent season in his near-decade run of excellence consisted of a .296 batting average, 40 doubles, 28 home runs and 110 RBIs.  Kent also made the playoffs seven times in his career and excelled against the Mets in two postseason meetings, batting .483 (14-for-29) in the 2000 and 2006 Division Series versus New York. 

Finally, as a member of the San Francisco Giants, Kent put up some of the best power numbers in the franchise's long and storied history.  On a team that can claim Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Matt Williams and Barry Bonds, to name a few, Jeff Kent's name can be found on the team's all-time home run list (175 - 10th all-time in Giants history) and slugging percentage (.535 - tied for 5th with Orlando Cepeda).

Richie Hebner
In many ways, Jeff Kent was like a modern-day Richie Hebner.  Both players were frequent postseason participants, with Hebner's teams making the playoffs eight times and Kent appearing in seven postseasons.  Both players were also very vocal about their displeasure with the Mets and the city they played in.  But there was one major difference between Kent and Hebner.

Richie Hebner came to New York at the tail end of his career, after having played over a decade in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, winning multiple division titles with each team.  Jeff Kent became a Met during his rookie season in the major leagues, then went on to become one of the greatest hitting second basemen of all-time after he left the city he never cared for.

Had Jeff Kent never left New York, perhaps Edgardo Alfonzo wouldn't have become the legendary Met he became.  Perhaps the Mets wouldn't have signed Robin Ventura, who was so instrumental during the team's run to the 1999 NLCS and 2000 World Series.  Perhaps Mets history would have looked a lot different.  (Just think - had Kent not carried the Astros on his back during the final week of the 2004 regular season, then Carlos Beltran might never have reached the postseason that year and would not have gotten a chance to parlay a record-setting playoff performance into a nine-figure deal with the Mets.)

But Kent did leave New York.  And he became a superstar in San Francisco.

Sometimes Mets fans cringe when they think of great players the team let get away.  But in Jeff Kent's case, fans would have cringed had he stayed in New York.  Although Kent had a Hall of Fame-caliber career after he skipped town, his departure was probably the best thing that could have happened to both him and the Mets.  This is one Met that should have gotten away and did.  And everyone involved ended up better because of it.

Note:  The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora  
January 21, 2013: Kevin Mitchell 
January 28, 2013: Amos Otis
February 4, 2013: Jeff Reardon
February 11, 2013: Lenny Dykstra

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