In a baseball world dominated by dollars and very little sense, Jason Kendall had become a burden for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite posting year after year of .300 batting averages and near .400 on-base percentages, Kendall was viewed by the Pirates regime as an albatross because of the $60 million contract they had signed him to. Almost since the moment the ink had dried on Kendall’s contract, the Pirates appeared to have the All-Star catcher on the trading block. For much of the past three seasons, the Pirates were distracted with the rumors that one of their best players and veteran leaders was going to be traded. In the off-season of 2003, the Pirates nearly had Kendall traded to the San Diego Padres, but the deal fell through and Kendall remained in Pittsburgh for the entire 2004 season dogged by the rumors that he was going to be traded.
The Pirates desperation to move Kendall’s contract was well-known throughout baseball. In addition, Kendall had a complete no-trade clause and it was believed that the southern California native was only interested in playing somewhere close to home. These factors, plus the size of Kendall’s contract, made it hard for the Pirates to find a deal where they could receive comparable players in return for Kendall. After the failed deal with San Diego, many believed that the Pirates were going to have to hold onto Kendall, perhaps for the duration of his contract. That was, of course, until Billy Beane stepped into the negotiations.
It was not a well-kept secret that A’s General Manager Billy Beane coveted the skills of Jason Kendall. Kendall is one of best top of the order hitters in all of baseball. He works the count well, sees a lot of pitches and makes a lot of contact. As a bonus, Kendall also runs well. However, the A’s are not generally in the market for players with large contracts, so it was assumed that the A’s would never be able to land Kendall. Then came the off-season of 2003.
When Beane began his work last off-season, he set out to 1) improve his outfield and 2) re-sign Keith Foulke. He was able to address his first objective by trading for centerfielder Mark Kotsay. However, to acquire Kotsay, Beane had to part with All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez. Beane then traded number four starter Ted Lilly to Toronto for Bobby Kielty to free up salary space in order to make a run at re-signing Foulke. The A’s made a valiant effort to ink the closer, but eventually lost out on him to the Boston Red Sox.
Losing out on Foulke left Beane with no closer and a little bit of money to play with. He also had to fill Lilly’s spot in the rotation. Armed with the extra cash, Beane made a rare foray on the free-agent market, signing former Mariner Arthur Rhodes to close and former Marlins’ starter Mark Redman to replace Lilly. At the time, it appeared that the A’s had managed to turn Foulke’s money into three productive players (Redman, Rhodes and Kielty). It didn’t quite work out that way.
When Redman signed his three-year deal for roughly $13 million, it seemed like a steal. He had been one of the most consistent starters in the National League in 2003. A crafty veteran lefty, he was seen as the perfect compliment to the Big Three and young phenom Rich Harden. However, Redman was unable to follow up his impressive 2003 campaign with a consistent 2004 campaign. Redman was superb on the road, but terrible at home and by the end of the year, he had been surpassed by Harden in the rotation. In addition, Sacramento River Cats’ star Joe Blanton was ready to step into the A’s rotation and Redman’s fifth slot was the logical place for the young right-hander to assume. Even though Redman was a solid back-end of the rotation starter for the A’s, it was clear that spending $4 million a year for a fifth starter was too much for the small market team.
Arthur Rhodes signed a similar three-year contract in the off-season of 2003. While experts were not as excited with Rhodes’ signing as they had been with Redman’s, most people thought that $3 million a year for three years was a reasonable amount to pay for a top-notch reliever, which is what Rhodes had been over the past four seasons in Seattle. However, Rhodes’ time with Oakland was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. It began poorly in late March, when Rhodes blew a save in the Bay Bridge spring training finale in his Oakland Coliseum debut. While he converted his first couple of saves in regular season, Rhodes was soon bit with the blown save bug and by mid-May, it was clear that the A’s had to look elsewhere for closer help. After trying Jim Mecir and Chad Bradford briefly, Beane went the trade route and acquired Houston closer Octavio Dotel.
At the same time as Dotel was acquired, Rhodes went on the DL for what eventually became a nearly two month stint on the shelf. When Rhodes returned to the Oakland bullpen, he still struggled despite returning to his more familiar role of set-up man. At the conclusion of the 2004 season, it appeared that the A’s were going to be stuck with two more years of Rhodes’ contract with no assurances that he could return to his previous dominating form.
The last piece of the Keith Foulke exchange was outfielder Bobby Kielty. Despite the fact that the Lilly-Kielty deal was mostly a salary dump, the A’s brass was counting on Kielty to provide Oakland with good offensive numbers as the starting left fielder. However, Kielty found himself mired in an early-season slump and eventually lost his starting position to Eric Byrnes. While the A’s are still hopefully that Kielty can regain his offensive prowess, they knew entering the off-season that they couldn’t count on the switch-hitting outfielder to produce a lot with the bat. The A’s were also ready to bid adieu to 2003 starting catcher Damian Miller, so entering the 2004 off-season, the A’s were in need for offense and a starting catcher. With Oakland looking for those items and Pittsburgh looking to dump Kendall’s contract and improve their pitching, the two small market teams were able to make a match.
Redman should be a huge help to Pittsburgh. Despite struggling at the Coliseum, Redman still threw a number of excellent games for Oakland on the road. He is a smart pitcher who should bring good veteran guidance to young phemon Oliver Perez. Redman will also give the Pirates a lot of innings and the experience of having played on winning teams. With Redman, Perez and Josh Fogg in Pittsburgh’s rotation, the Pirates should have a competitive starting rotation in the pitching solid NL Central.
Rhodes may not be as good of a fit for Pittsburgh, but he may not be long for the team, anyway. There are rumors that the Los Angeles Dodgers are interested in Rhodes as part of a package that would send outfielder Milton Bradley to Pittsburgh. If that was to happen, the Pirates would be replacing much of the offense that they lost in dealing Kendall. A middle of the order with Jack and Craig Wilson, Bradley and NL Rookie of the Year Jason Bay would give the Pirates a good offensive nucleus (although I would think that one of those players – likely Craig Wilson – would also be included in any deal to LA for Bradley). If Rhodes stays with Pittsburgh, he would give them more veteran depth at the back-end of the bullpen. While Rhodes looked awful in his stint with Oakland, I still believe he can be an effective reliever for the right team and Pittsburgh might be the right stage for him to revive his career.
On the Oakland side of things, there is very little downside to this deal. I liken this move to the Mark Kotsay trade last season and think the A’s could see similar positive results. Kendall has been an extremely consistent performer throughout his career and shows little signs of slowing down. In fact, a move to the American League will probably elongate Kendall’s career, as the A’s will be able to DH him at times to keep the wear and tear off of his legs. Kendall is also a Kotsay-like player in terms of his toughness. He has suffered some horrific injuries during his career (including a dislocated ankle and a torn-thumb tendon) and has come back with a vengeance from all of them. He plays the game the right way and will give the A’s a hard-nosed edge that they sometimes have lacked in years’ past.
Kendall will also give the A’s a lot of options at the top of the order. Both Kendall and Kotsay can hit lead-off or hit second, meaning the A’s can adjust their line-up more frequently then they did last season. Kendall, like Kotsay, rarely strikes out, meaning that the A’s will be able to do a little more hitting and running if they want to. Most importantly, however, Kendall gets on base at a very high rate, meaning that more runners should be on-base for Eric Chavez when he comes to the plate.
Lastly, Kendall will give the A’s time to develop their stable of young, minor league catchers. Currently, the A’s boast four minor league catchers who could have major league futures in John Baker, Jeremy Brown, Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki. However, none of them are ready for the majors this season. Having Kendall in the starting line-up will allow the A’s the luxury of not rushing any of those players. By 2007 (the final year of Kendall’s contract), the A’s will have a good idea which of the four catchers is ready to assume the starting role. At that time, the A’s will likely be able to move Kendall, as the Pirates will be paying part of Kendall’s contract, making it easier for more teams to acquire him.
Trading for Kendall will improve the A’s now without jeopardizing their future. Redman and Rhodes’ departures will open up roster spots for major league ready young players like Blanton and Huston Street. In addition, the A’s did not have to give up any of their stable of young players to acquire Kendall, meaning that they should still be able to transition well from their current group of stars to the next generation of A’s players.
The A’s are now only one outfield bat away from what should be an excellent team in 2005. It seems unlikely with Redman gone from the rotation that Beane would trade any of his Big Three starters, meaning the A’s should be a playoff contender again in 2005. While the Kendall is deal is likely only the start of Beane’s off-season dealings, it is a very strong beginning. With Kendall in the fold, the A’s immediate future is looking rosy. And there is a team in Pittsburgh who can look forward to an improved ballclub, as well.
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