11.30.04

Marchman On Beane & The Kendall Trade

Posted in Baseball at 12:03 pm by

The New York Sun’s Tim Marchman reconsiders Billy Beane and the A’s trade for Jason Kendall :

It’s hard to change a reputation in baseball, for better or for worse. From Carl Everett, who spent years as a model citizen and is still thought of as a madman, to Jim Edmonds, who recently won a fifth straight Gold Glove out of sheer inertia, the ideas people have of public figures are rarely revisited. There are many reputations in need of scrutiny, but none more so than that of Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, who has been lauded by so many for so long that his deals are by now acclaimed out of mere habit.

This was the case with Beane’s acquisition last week of catcher Jason Kendall for starter Mark Redman and reliever Arthur Rhodes. The deal was a risk, albeit one that was arguably worth taking, and is likely to hurt the A’s more than it will help them in years to come.

Kendall’s value, coming off a superb year in which he caught 146 games and finished ninth in the National League in on-base average, is almost certainly about to collapse. He is a historically unique player, a catcher who provides solid offense based almost entirely on durability (he’s had at least 545 at-bats each of the last three years) and batting average (he’s hit .319 or better in five different seasons).

There are problems with this. First, even when he hits .320, Kendall is merely a decent hitter: His OPS, after adjusting for park effects, was just 10% better than league average this year. When he hits .280, as he did in 2002, that figure drops to 20% worse than average. Other than hitting singles and drawing walks, he has no offensive skills. This hasn’t been a problem yet, because when you combine that on base ability with great durability, you have a significant asset.

Unfortunately, Kendall is not going to endure. In the postwar history of baseball, there are all of 26 player seasons in which a catcher older than 30 has had at least 500 at-bats. Interestingly, the only good campaigns among these were had by power hitters.

Kendall will be 31 this coming year. His tenure in Oakland will see him lose batting average due to age, as knees that have taken years of pounding behind the plate will prevent him from running as fast as he has, and it will see him lose durability, also due to age. For him to keep the only two talents that make him a good player would be historically unprecedented – most likely, he’ll be a solid player along the lines of A.J. Pierzynski, but never again a star.

The left-handers Beane sent to Pittsburgh for Kendall aren’t particularly exciting at this point in their careers, but they’re the sort of average performers who become suddenly conspicuous when the lack of them costs a team a playoff spot. Had the 2004 Chicago White Sox roster included Redman and Rhodes, for instance, the AL Central race would have been much closer than it actually was.

This deal isn’t about Redman and Rhodes, though, nor even about Kendall. It’s about money, specifically the poor management of it by an Oakland team that’s never fulfilled its potential, and whose actions just don’t match up with its philosophies. “Moneyball” is a damn good book, and Beane ought to read it for some tips on baseball management.

Pittsburgh has been trying to unload Kendall’s contract for quite some time. His 6-year, $60 million deal, which lasts through the 2007 season, looks bad in retrospect, because of the changed labor climate that’s driven salaries down, and due to a freak injury that cost Kendall two productive years.

Kendall is owed $34 million over the next three years, of which Pittsburgh will apparently pay $3 million; Redman and Rhodes are due $14.75 million over the same span. In essence, then, the A’s are paying $16.25 million for the upgrade from Rhodes and Redman to Kendall over the next three years. This year, when Kendall played at the top of his range, Redman was mediocre, and Rhodes had an awful year, the difference was worth about three wins. With that figure likely to narrow greatly, this looks like a lot of money to pay for a moderately improved chance of winning a pennant, especially given that Oakland owner Steve Schott is apparently set to continue his stingy ways.

Whether trading for a pricey and apparently injured Octavio Dotel to fix the mess he made by signing Rhodes to be his closer, or acquiring outfielder Bobby Kielty on the strength of a three-month stretch in 2002 when he drew some walks, Beane has done very little that’s impressive, and an awful lot that doesn’t help his team. Trading for Kendall to replace Jermaine Dye as an overpaid albatross is just another in a growing list of baffling moves where Beane covers up a self-inflicted wound with a player in decline.

Oakland has done a lot in Beane’s tenure, and there’s little doubt that he still ranks as among the best executives in the game. But with moves like the Kendall trade, the “genius” tag that hangs on his neck is starting to look in need of a bit of polishing. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt, but for him to earn a return to the playoffs he’ll have to do a lot more than keep playing his shell game.

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