Thursday, November 25, 2004

So long, "Kid", and thanks for the memories 

Time for a rare foray into in-depth baseball analysis (since there's been a major Pirates development, and I'm working the early shift on a sloooow holiday morning. Happy Thanksgiving to all, by the way!)

Jason Kendall, who's on the verge of being traded to Oakland, played his heart out for the Pirates for 9 years. But there's no escaping the fact that he's obscenely overpaid. When he signed his mammoth contract in 2000, some thought it was justified. Some were OK with it, but concerned. I didn't really fit into either group. Despite my respect for Kendall's play, I thought it was boneheaded then...and I really hate it now, as he's staked his claim as one of the most overpaid players in the game. At best, the move was fiscally irresponsible. At worst, the whole thing was delusional. The bottom line was that GM Cam Bonifay feared losing his uber-popular, hard-nosed star player as the team moved into a new ballpark.

Kendall gets on base at a fantastic rate. He's one of the best, period. Columnist Brian O'Neill pointed out last fall that Kendall's on-base percentage is largely underappreciated by Joe Q. Fan. I agree. But O'Neill goes on to say that this is Kendall's only real attribute. He has about as little power as a professional player can have; his speed has deteriorated; his defense -- never great -- is now pretty bad; and he consistently fails to produce when placed in run-producing situations. O'Neill estimated that Kendall is worth, at most, about $5 million. Again, I agree. With his salary at $10 million and headed to an embarassing $13 million, he had to go.

I could list dozens (hundreds?) of depressing numbers to indicate what this kind of money is buying other teams. But consider just a couple:

* The first three years of AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero's contract, signed prior to this past season: $10M in '04; $11.5M in '05; $12.5M in '06.
* The Orioles signed catcher Javy Lopez last winter for $6M. His numbers compared to Kendall's:

Lopez: 23 HR, 86 RBI, .316 BA, .370 OBP, .503 SLG
Kendall: 3 HR, 51 RBI, .319 BA, .399 OBP, .390 SLG

To be fair, I should include Kendall's numbers for 2000, the year before he signed the big contract: 14 HR, 58 RBI, .320 BA, .412 OBP.

Sure, there were some reasons to believe he could improve a bit. But there was also reason to know he could get worse. Among other things, a gruesome ankle injury in 1999 did permanent damage and left bone rubbing against bone. His doctors said so at the time, before the contract was signed. I remember clearly that in 2000 the doctors told the local media that his condition would worsen over time because he has no cartilege in his ankle. That could have been expected to affect not only his speed, but his defense and his ability to generate power off his damaged back foot. Has that actually been the cause? Who knows? But it's probably affected him somewhat in terms of strength and stamina if not daily pain. And at the very least, it should've been another reason not to bet the farm on him.

I wasn't alone in my thinking back then. JQ -- an esteemed member of my very own fantasy league who also happens to do fine work for CNNSI.com -- said in November 2000 that the Pirates were employing a "Roto mentality" by signing Kendall and were trying to keep fans happy. JQ made what I'm sure he'd now agree turned out to be quite the understatement, that $10 million a year seems "a bit much." He added, "Is he worth almost as much as Mike Piazza?" Certainly not.

In return for Kendall the Pirates get two pitchers. Mark Redman could help stabilize the rotation. Arthur Rhodes should be useful in a relief role. But it doesn't really matter if they are or not. The team had to get out from under this deal, and with an extra $15-18 million in the bank, they can now address some other needs.

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