First the Wall, Then the Hall: Jeff Kent Was One of the Best Giants Ever

Danny PenzaSenior Writer IAugust 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 19:  Second baseman Jeff Kent #21 of the San Francisco Giants walks on the infield during the MLB game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 19, 2002 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Dodgers won 6-3. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

It's never easy to trade a fan favorite during your time as a team's general manager, let alone trade one of the most-beloved players on the roster within your first few months on the job.

This is the move that then-rookie general manager of the San Francisco Giants Brian Sabean did when he traded fan favorite and four-time All-Star third baseman Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Julian Tavarez and Joe Roa, and infielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent.

There wasn't a legit centerpiece that you would think there would be when trading a player of Williams' caliber. But if there was going to a centerpiece, then Kent certainly developed into one.

He didn't have the makings of a stellar career before he came to the Giants. Sure he had hit 20-plus home runs in his career twice, but he had only driven in over 70 runs just once and wasn't at an age where you could say he had a ton of room to grow as a player.

A 29-year-old second baseman with a .274 career batting averaged who average 15 homers and 63 RBI wasn't looked at as a genuine replacement for a guy who would've challenged Roger Maris' single-season home run record if not for the Major League Baseball strike in 1994.

Boy, were we wrong.

The results were fantastic as the Giants not only came back from the dead, they were on the brink of a World Series title by the end of Kent's time by the Bay.

On Saturday, Kent will be honored by the Giants when he is placed amongst some of the greatest players to ever play for the organization. He will be up there with the likes of Mays, McCovey, Marichal, former teammates and, ironically, just a few short feet away from the man who went in the opposite direction in the November 1996 trade.

It may be a small memento in between Second and Third St., but the impact that Kent made on the Giants during his six years in orange and black is insurmountable.

His first year in San Francisco was the best year he had since his first-full season with the Mets in 1993. He set career highs in games played (155), home runs (29), and RBI (121) while teaming with Barry Bonds in the middle of a Giants lineup that went from 94 losses the year before to National League West champions.

Almost every number that Kent put up was almost equal or better than what Williams did in his only year with Cleveland. His batting average wasn't great, only .250, but driving in 121 runs certainly made up for that.

And that was only a sign of things to come.

The next season brought even better numbers. While the Giants failed to make the playoffs, Kent again set career highs in basically every statistical category there is and basically proved that he wasn't a one-year wonder.

As the Giants opened their new park in 2000, Kent, along with Bonds, were the two main reasons as to why the Giants were the best team in baseball during the regular season. At age 32, Kent had the best year of his career, hitting .334, 33 HR, 125 RBI, .424 OBP, and a career-high OPS of 1.021.

He was recognized for his efforts at the end of the with the National League MVP. He probably enjoyed it the recognition a little bit, but I'm sure, as most of us are, that he enjoyed the 97 wins that the Giants won that season.

Kent's final year by the Bay saw him set a career-high in homers with 37, but it also saw the Giants reach the World Series. If he had to pick, he'd take a chance to win a World Series ring 11 times out of 10.

We won't speak of Game Six or Seven, but don't blame Kent for not giving his best when it mattered most. In 29 at-bats, Kent lead the team with seven RBI, clubbed three home runs (Bonds hit four), and hit .276.

He departed after that season as Sabean basically turned over the entire starting lineup. In came Ray Durham, who was supposed to bring speed and power to the top of the order, and as long-time manager Dusty Baker wasn't re-signed, Kent made his way to Huston.

In his six-year Giants career, Kent averaged a .297 BA, 29 HR, 114 RBI, .368 OBP, and a .903 OPS stat line. He won three Silver Slugger Awards, was a four-time All-Star, and finished in the Top 10 of NL MVP voting five of his six years in San Francisco.

For a second baseman, those are not only Wall of Fame numbers, those are Hall of Fame numbers. As he said Monday, when the time comes to enshrine himself in the Hall, he would "absolutely" like to enter as a Giant.

But there was much more to Kent than just the mashing at the dish.

Sure, he will go remembered for his bat, but Kent played the game the way it was supposed to be played. You knew you were going to get his maximum effort out there and that he would be in the lineup almost every game. In four of his six years with the Giants, Kent played more than 150 games.

It didn't matter if he took a knock standing firm trying to turn a double play with a runner trying to take out his knees or smashing a ball of his foot at the plate, everybody knew the Southern California native with a Texas attitude was going to be in the lineup.

He would never be mistaken with Roberto Alomar at second, but he was no hack with the leather either. He wasn't like one of the current crop of second baseman in baseball blessed with the athleticism of a point guard in the NBA, but he could handle the position because of his footwork and reckless abandon when turning two.

Either way, you knew he woudln't butcher it in the field.

In 1998, Kent was rewarded not by the media, but by his teammates and coaches, when he received the Willie Mac Award. If you wanted a guy on your team who would lead by example, Kent was that guy. He didn't care about personal achievements, he just wanted to win. He busted his tail and fans couldn't have asked for anything more from him.

Did Barry Bonds ever win the Willie Mac Award? Don't think so.

People may think he is a scum bag for never really coming clean about how he hurt his wrist during Spring Training in 2002, opening his mouth when he left to sign with the Houston Astros in 2002, or playing for the Dodgers to close out his career, but you don't just win over the recognition of your teammates by just going through the motions.

And here's something to remember—even though he broke his wrist in Spring Training doing whatever the hell he did, he still managed to play in 152 games. Not bad.

"I’m satisfied I played the game the right way and with respect."

We are as well. See you on the Wall and in the Hall.


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