Top 100 Mets #81: Jeff Kent

Jeff Kent's Mets career was book ended by two regrettable trades. Kent arrived at Shea Stadium as a secondary piece with few expectations in a fire sale deal; his departure was quietly necessary in the acquisition of a star. In the four years between, fallow years between two Mets dynasties, he consistently produced in a starting role. Unfortunately, those years have been nearly relegated to a footnote in Kent's career by what came after.

Kent's reputation with the fans never thrived, but he left as one of the most productive middle infielders in team history, a legacy of solid play that earns him a spot as # 81 in our countdown.

Jeff Kent's career began inauspiciously. In 1989 he was drafted in the 20th round out of the University of California. That summer he was sent to rookie ball in the NY-Penn league. Playing a full schedule, Kent hit the ball hard (13 homeruns in 73 games), but didn't show much else, sporting a poor batting average and a damning strikeout rate. With a poor defensive profile - the one aspect of his game that was a bugaboo for the majority of his career - Kent wasn't on any prospects lists and looked like an organizational pawn.

The following year, Kent moved on to full season minor league baseball and began to produce. His power hitting remained especially strong for a young infielder, he cut down on the Ks and continued to walk at a respectable rate. Most importantly, he raised his batting average to .277, an increase of 50 points. In 1991, Kent again moved up a level, to AA, and played a full season there. His production fell but there were a few indicators that he continued to mature as a hitter: he continued to crank out doubles and he increased his walk totals substantially.

In 1992, the year that Jeff Kent made his major league debut, the Mets were a depressing bunch, a smoldering hulk of a team. In the late 80s they boasted simultaneously one of the best and youngest teams in baseball, but some poor luck prompted a lot of poor decisions that earned the team the moniker of "the worst team money could buy" and provided the modern sports' textbook case for the wrong way to spend money and quick fix a struggling team. Before the 1992 trading deadline, ownership decided that it was time to begin cutting bait. The team put their one remaining truly valuable chip, David Cone, an All-Star pitcher in the prime of his career, on the block.

Year

Team

AVG.

AB

Hits

HR

RBI

R

SB

BB

K

OBP

SLG

1992

Mets

.239

113

27

3

15

16

0

7

29

.289

.407

1993

Mets

.270

496

134

21

80

65

4

30

88

.320

.446

1994

Mets

.292

415

121

14

68

53

1

23

84

.341

.475

1995

Mets

.278

472

131

20

65

65

3

29

89

.327

.464

1996

Mets

.290

335

97

9

39

45

4

21

56

.331

.436



Jeff Kent became a Met as the least important player in the trade that sent Cone to Toronto. Cone was the ace that the Blue Jays needed for their playoff run; he was a success and became known as a hired gun. In return, the Mets reportedly had their pick of any prospect in the Blue Jays' minor league system. Passing over players like Derek Bell, management made centerfielder Ryan Thompson their top choice. Thompson had virtually no success in the minor leagues as a hitter - in hindsight, the choice seems inexplicable - but he graded off the scouts' charts. He was a true five-tool prospect and was built like an Adonis, with muscles bursting out from under his uniform and a body so athletic that it seemed impossible that he wouldn't succeed. In fact, he failed miserably.

In contrast, Jeff Kent had already shown signs of productive ability in the major leagues. At the time he was not regarded as a particularly valuable player or an especially valuable prospect, but he was holding his own impressively: he was promoted to the Blue Jays in 1992 without playing a game in AAA, and he was hitting. Included in the trade to potentially fill a hole at second for the Mets, Kent continued to play semi-regularly. His production dipped at Shea, but he had justified a good long look as a starter the following year.

Something clicked in 1993, his first full season with the Mets. Kent won the second base job with ease and established himself as the regular #6 hitter. He hit 21 homeruns and drove in 80 runs, very strong totals from a second baseman, and might have reminded fans of Howard Johnson or Kevin Mitchell, two other young slugging infielders that the Mets developed in the 80s. Perhaps the more pertinent comparison was to Gregg Jefferies, the not so dearly departed second baseman whose job Kent inherited. Kent's profile was similar to Jefferies' - both were solid hitters with lagging gloves - but the manner in which they achieved their production was wholly opposite. Jefferies was one of the most hyped prospects in baseball history, yet he grew very slowly as a major league player and remained a disappointment throughout his New York Mets career. Kent's emergence as a starter was a happy surprise.

In the following two years Kent maintained his position on the field and continued to hit the ball hard. His hitting totals from this period were quite consistent - a .280 average and 20 homeruns could almost be expected - and as the team changed, the Mets began to rely on him more. In 1994 he led an empty Mets lineup in hits, doubles, and RBI, while batting #5 in the majority of his games. In 1995 he started 59 games as the cleanup hitter, a true sign of success for a middle infielder. Mets fans were understandably restless, however, in these fallow years, and Kent never convincingly won their appreciation. His bat remained steady, but his defensive reputation declined. Eventually he was moved to third base, where management hoped that his poor range would be less exposed.

In 1996, ownership began to decide that the Mets had paid their penance. The payroll had plummeted from the top of the league to the bottom as the team shed its overpaid, underperforming vets. There were also signs, however, of a thaw. Young players such as Todd Hundley and Bobby Jones began to play more important roles for the team, and the farm system was lauded as the best in baseball. In mid-season, an apparent superstar became available in trade for an apparently small package, and the Mets jumped on the opportunity to provide the young team with an established cornerstone. Jeff Kent was traded along with Jose Vizcaino to the Cleveland Indians in order to bring Carlos Baerga to Shea Stadium.

At the time of the move, the trade seemed logical and entirely justified. In hindsight it was an obvious mistake, and now we can debate whether or not there were indications of the trade's fate at the time it was made.
Jeff Kent
Jeff Kent: Kent was shipped to Cleveland for Carlos Baerga.
On one hand, Baerga, an All-Star who could regularly be counted on for a .315 average, had established a level of play that never could have reasonably been expected from Jeff Kent. On the other hand, Baerga was in the worst slump of his career at the time of his trade, unable to hit 100 games into the season. Kent showed no hints of a future breakout, no signs of improvement during his Mets tenure, but it is fair to say that the production he provided was almost universally underrated.

The Cleveland Indians didn't understand the talent that they had either; for the third time in his career, Jeff Kent was moved along to make way for the acquisition of a star player. The idiosyncratic but wildly successful GM Brian Sabean cemented his reputation when Jeff Kent easily outperformed the "star," the traded Matt Williams, and quickly began to hit at a Hall of Fame level with the Giants. Mets fans can wonder what might have been had Jeff Kent remained with the team, but they can comfort themselves with the fact that nobody - or almost nobody - could have predicted Jeff Kent's amazing maturation. We hope that his post-Mets career, instead of further clouding his image with regret, will instead highlight what good he did do for the team.

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