Face it, the Dodgers need Jeff Kent for his bat. He’s in his 40’s and clearly doesn’t have the range or glove skills he used to; he’s not a great clubhouse presence, he’s not mentoring young players, he’s not particularly that easy to get along but with all that being said, he’s a future Hall of Famer and can still wield a mean bat for a 40 year old who plays at a traditionally weak position (2B). If healthy, Kent is good for at least 20-25 HRs, a .280-.300 batting average and 75-100 RBIs per season, which is BETTER than excellent production from a 2B. That’s a legitimate big bat you can stick in the middle of the lineup. He has become a luxury that Dodger fans have quickly grown accustomed to. Throughout recent memory the Dodgers have had light-hitting middle infielders with flashy gloves like Alex Cora, Caesar Izturis, Alfredo Griffin, Steve Sax and even current shortstop, Rafael Furcal. Kent has hit more HRs in a single season than all of those guys combined but at this point in his career his bat is pretty much all he brings to the table. The team would be much better off playing him at 1B because of his deteriorating fielding ability but that’s impossible due to the breakout season that up and coming star 1B, James Loney, enjoyed last season. In order to get the most out of the lineup as a whole, Kent must remain at 2B…and that’s the ONLY option, regardless of his 14 errors last season.
Kent raised eyebrows late last season after publicly criticizing the team’s young players after imploding against the Rockies. The Dodgers were comfortably in 1st place at one point in the season and remained near the top for the majority of the season until the Sept. collapse that left them on the outside looking in. Many in the media blamed the veterans for losing steam down the stretch but Kent begged to differ. After officially falling out of contention after losing 4 straight games to the Rockies, Kent gave an interview to a reporter and said,
“I don’t know what it is, especially when you have a lot of young players. It’s hard to influence a big group. We’ve got some good kids on the team. Don’t get me wrong, please don’t misinterpret my impressions. [But] it’s hard to translate experience. I don’t know why they don’t get it.”
When asked what it is that the young players don’t get, Kent replied,
“A lot of things. Professionalism. How to manufacture a run. How to keep your emotions in it. There’s just a lot of things that go on with playing 162 games. But I think experience can help more than inexperience. And it’s hard to give a young kid experience.”
On face value, what he said wasn’t all that bad. It could be looked at as a way to try to motivate the young players to pick it up and get it going. The problem was his criticism was misguided. Other than Kent himself, the young players had outperformed the veterans all season long. Older players like Nomar Garciaparra, Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Brett Tomko underachieved all season long and burned out down the stretch, when the team needed them most. Media reports indicated that the vets previously listed all took issue with management after they were replaced in the everyday lineup by their younger counterparts, which could’ve negatively effected their confidence and may have been a contributing factor to their late season collapse. But when it comes down to it, Kent completely missed the boat…the young players were really the only players the team could consistently rely on after all of the seasoned veterans disappeared. I’m not sure what Kent is talking about when he mentions “professionalism” but if he really did have a problem with the way the younger players were acting behind the scenes then he should have dealt with it internally. He definitely shouldn’t have brought it up when chatting with reporters after a game because it wasn’t “professional”. Talk about being emotional…It sounds like he was wound up after a game at best or nothing more than a bitter hypocrite at worst.
Then came talk of retirement. An ultimatum was basically laid on the Dodgers by the Kent camp demanding change or else! He wasn’t going to rush into a decision until he was presented with evidence that management was serious about filling holes this winter. After fellow future Hall of Famer, manager Joe Torre was signed to a 3 year contract, Kent piped up from behind the confines of his 4,000 acre Texas dude-ranch applauding the move. His enthusiasm for Torre led most people to believe he would be back for yet another season in Dodger blue. As much as Kent liked the idea of signing Torre and even though it appeared as if a new manager was at the top of Jeff’s offseason wishlist, no announcement was forthcoming. It became clear that he was holding out for new players. The team had an obvious need for a power bat in the middle of the lineup to provide protection and when GM Ned Colletti began negotiations with former Braves slugger, free agent Andruw Jones, the Kent camp surely took notice. As it turns out, he announced his intentions of returning for another year on the same day that Andruw’s 2 year, $36 million contract was officially signed.
History does repeat itself and Kent has had problems at virtually every stop he’s made. Of course, he’s famous for fighting with current federal punching bag and HR king, Barry Bonds during his tumultuous days in San Francisco and it’s always been floated around that he’s not an easy guy to get along with but the Dodgers had to know that when they took him on. They didn’t bring him in to mentor the kids, act as a coach/player or to be a positive influence in the clubhouse. He was brought in to provide some pop to a lineup that was sorely lacking at the time and that’s the simple truth of the matter. Anybody’s who’s kept up with his career knows that he has a bad temper and a volatile personality. Those that work around him describe him as a solitary guy who’s stubborn and stuck in his ways…or an old school traditionalist who enjoys personal time to put it nicely. Point is, Jeff Kent is Jeff Kent and that’s all we can expect. He didn’t magically turn into Jose Lima over the winter, he is who he is and that’s a slugger that the Dodgers can count on for serious and consistent production. What was said in the past was actually quite tame compared to some of his blowups on other teams and shouldn’t be taken too seriously by Dodger fans. If he was able to overlook whatever differences he may have had with the team and come back to play for another year, the fans should be willing to overlook whatever differences they may have had with him and cheer him on.
I’m not a big fan of the way Jeff Kent is handling this offseason. As unlikely as it seems, he may very well retire (especially after last year’s late-season blowup) and leave the Dodgers scrambling for a replacement months or even weeks before the season starts. If that’s the case, the Dodgers will have missed out on much, if not all of the free agent market and will be left with in-house prospects. That’s not always a bad thing but would limit their options. Of course, if he comes back, none of that will matter and we’ll have Kent for another year or two but the Dodgers do have a wealth of young middle-infield prospects. None of them project to be the kind of player that Kent is, not many middle-infielders do. It’s very rare to find a 2B with the kind of offensive abilities that Kent has. He can hit for power and average and can knock in runs like a 1B or 3B. That’s what makes him a future Hall of Famer. Getting that kind of power from a generally weak position has given the Dodgers a real advantage in their lineup; rather than having a slap hitting 2B at the bottom of the order, they have had a big bat in the middle. Once he’s gone that advantage will be gone and we’ll be left with much weaker options, just like most other teams.
The best free agents available at 2B this offseason are two Japanese league crossovers, Kazuo Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi. They both have their strengths and can certainly help a team but they have their weaknesses as well and cannot compare to the kind of production Kent puts up. Matsui played a part in the Rockies’ World Series run and is a different type of player altogether. He’s much faster, steals bases and is a table setter. Iguchi’s is more in the mold of Kent’s but produces half as much offensively. Neither is a great option and both are in their mid-30’s so there’s not much room for improvement; what you see is what you get. They’d both likely require a multiple year contract which would tie up the team’s payroll, making neither an ideal choice.
There are trade options as well. Many trade options reportedly. Players ranging from Brian Roberts to Howie Kendrick to Jose Lopez to Freddy Sanchez to Rickie Weeks have all been rumored to be available at one point or another…that is, for the right price. Each player listed would likely cost a king’s ransom in young talent, something the Dodgers are unwilling to do (and for good reason). There are less expensive alternatives out there, more or less stop-gap options who could get by for a season until a better option emerges. Names like Jose Castillo (who was recently non-tendered by the Pirates), Todd Walker, Marcus Giles and Mark Loretta come to mind. They’re all free agents and would likely agree to a much smaller and shorter contract. They may not be very flashy names but are good enough to be serviceable for a season or two.
I mentioned earlier that there are in-house options and they may actually be our best (and safest) bet to replace Kent. Guys like Chin-Lung Hu, Tony Abreu, Preston Mattingly, Blake DeWitt, Josh Bell and Ivan DeJesus are all promising young players and any one of them could step up and take the job at some point down the road. Hu and Abreu look like the most ready of that group right now but that could literally change overnight. Hu is more highly rated and actually won the MVP award for the Futures Game during last season’s All Star break. He was also named as Dodgers’ minor leaguer of the year last season as well so as you can see, he’s highly touted. He’s not so much of an offensive prospect but rather a defensive prospect but has enough skills with the bat to get by. The potential is there to develop offensively but it will take time. His natural position is SS but is perfectly capable of playing the other side. Tony Abreu is a much more polished hitter and could be ahead of Hu on the depth chart after getting a look last year on the big league team. In limited time last year Abreu hit .271 with 2 HRs and 17 RBIs in only 166 at-bats. Scouts believe that double-digit power is there but he will have to become more disciplined at the plate. His OBP wasn’t up to par (.309) but could be misleading due to the small sample size. He was a little better in the minors but was still on the low side. He needs to learn how to be more patient and take a walk. That would do wonders for his value. Blake DeWitt was a once highly touted 3B prospect but has fallen short of expectations at the plate and was moved over to 2B with the thought that he’d have a better chance to advance at a weaker offensive position. He’s still very young and has plenty of time to turn it around but as of now he’s more of a long shot than Hu or Abreu. Preston Mattingly is yet another talented young 2B in the system and is the son of former Yankee great (and new Dodgers’ hitting coach) Don Mattingly. Much was expected from Mattingly but he failed to deliver last year after hitting a miserable .210 with the Class A Great Lake Loons. Again, he is young and still has plenty of time to turn it around. Ivan DeJesus and Josh Bell are both very promising prospects (DeJesus may be the best of the whole bunch) but they are both still young, 19 and 20 years old respectively and are still several years away from the majors. Bell is more of a 3B prospect but could be shifted to 2B if fellow 3B prospect Andy LaRoche ever catches on.
To sum it up, the Dodgers can’t expect to replace Jeff Kent’s production. It’s just not going to happen…at least not at first. Eventually Kent will retire (even if it’s not this season) and will leave a rather large hole in the lineup to fill. When that time comes there will be many different possibilities and directions to go. We can only hope that next year’s free agent market is stronger but in the short-term and long-term an in-house prospect could make a lot of sense for a young team like the Dodgers. There are plenty to chose from, now it’s just a question of who will step up to take the job when that time comes…