By NICK LECO
It’s been a long, cold winter, but now that the 2009 Major League Baseball season is in full swing, it’s time to kick off another summer of Cooperstown Bound? columns. We had a great inaugural season in 2008, and the debate was closed on one of last year’s subjects in January when Jim Rice was finally elected on his 15th and final year on the ballot. But while we addressed the Hall of Fame worthiness of 17 other very good and possibly great players last year, there are still plenty of guys on the Cooperstown bubble. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the resume of Jeff Kent, who announced his retirement less than three months ago after 17 mostly stellar big league seasons.
JEFF KENT - CAREER STATISTICS
At Bats: 8,498
Home Runs: 377
After five so-so years with the Blue Jays, Mets and Indians, Kent exploded on the scene in 1997 with the Giants, hitting 29 home runs and knocking in 121 to earn an eighth-place finish in the MVP voting. From that point until the middle of this decade, he was without question one of the best offensive second basemen in the majors. During an 11-year stretch that began in 1997, Kent hit more than 20 home runs nine times and slugged 30-plus longballs three times. He topped the 100 RBI-mark eight times during that stretch.
Kent received MVP votes in seven seasons and placed in the top 10 four times. He won the award in 2000, edging teammate Barry Bonds by hitting .334 with 33 homers and 125 RBI. He ranked in the top 10 in 10 offensive categories that year, including on-base percentage (sixth, .424), slugging percentage (10th, .596), runs (eighth, 114), hits (fifth, 196), and total bases (seventh, 350). Kent was selected to five All-Star teams during his career and won four Silver Slugger awards.
Kent’s offensive numbers put him in the company of the best second baseman in the history of the game. He hit 69 more home runs as a second baseman (351) than his next closest competition - Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg - and he is the only second baseman in history to post nine straight seasons of 20-plus home runs and 90-plus RBI. Kent finished with more runs and RBI and a higher career average than Sandberg and fellow hall of Famer Joe Morgan, and had more runs and hits than Sandberg in a comparable number of at bats. He ranks 62nd on the all-time home run list and 47th in career RBI - impressive standings for any player, but especially for a second baseman.
As great an offensive player as he was, Kent was nothing special on defense. The two Hall of Famers I compared him with earlier, Sandberg and Morgan, were far superior defensively, combining for 14 Gold Gloves between them. While Kent did not commit many errors - his career fielding percentage is actually better than Morgan’s - he had limited range. Roberto Alomar clearly outshined him as the best defensive second baseman over the past 20 years or so.
Kent was known as a “bad clubhouse guy” throughout his career and was sometimes overshadowed by his off-the-field issues, including a highly publicized shoving match with Bonds in 2002. He missed spring training one year with a broken wrist - an injury he initially claimed occurred while washing his truck, but was later found to have resulted from a motorcycle accident. In 2007, teammate Milton Bradley accused Kent of being a racist.
Kent’s detractors point out that he benefited from hitting behind Bonds during his prime years and claim that the power numbers of his era were inflated due to performance-enhancing drugs, smaller ballparks and watered down pitching resulting from expansion.
Kent’s offensive numbers are impressive enough to warrant induction into the Hall of Fame, and though he played during he Steroid Era, he has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Detractors will take shots at Kent’s defense at second base but the fact remains that he lasted at the position for 17 seasons and was never forced to move to the American League and DH. Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas will join Kent on the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility and he could also be competing with potential carry-overs like Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio. All that competition makes it unlikely that he’ll be inducted on his initial try, but the writers will eventually deem Kent worthy of a place in Cooperstown.
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns:
Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Mike Mussina, Jim Rice, Andres Galarraga, Jim Kaat, Dave Concepcion.