Jason Kendall and the Hole That Remains

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As obsessively as I have been following the catchers on the market, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have some thoughts on the Royals signing 35 year old C-Jason Kendall to a 2-year contract.  I have been trying to get my thoughts and feelings into order about this move since I heard the news and, sadly, I’m still not there.  My conclusion is that if I don’t put some of these thoughts into a post, my brain very well could short circuit.  This signing is an error in judgment and an error in talent evaluation that I just can’t wrap my head around.

Let’s set aside who the Royals had at the position in 2009 and also what their other options were on the market.  Let’s also set aside the specifics of Kendall’s contract and ask a very simple question.  What does Jason Kendall bring to the table that would make the Royals want to sign him to a contract in the first place?  He does get on base.  His 0.331 OBP in 2009 was well off of his career mark of 0.369, but considering his OBP in 2007 and 2008 was 0.301 and 0.327 respectively, it would be unreasonable to expect anything better.  Throw in the fact that he spent the last two seasons hitting in a loaded Brewers lineup in front of a pitcher, and any rational individual would be right to anticipate a drop in his offensive numbers.  The Royals have a less-than-imposing lineup, and even Yuniesky Betancourt can hit better than a NL pitcher.  In fact, teams would be right to pitch around Yunie to get to Kendall if they were presented with that scenario.  That pretty much sums up this acquisition, doesn’t it?  The team will point to Kendall’s defensive prowess as a reason to sign him, but nothing I have ever seen justifies the team’s belief.  A catcher’s defensive value is one of the toughest things to measure, but with the standards in place at the present time, it doesn’t appear that signing Jason for his defense is justified.

One of the primary jobs of a MLB GM is to acquire talent and fill holes in the existing roster every season.  I’m “okay” with the fact that Miguel Olivo and John Buck (29) are gone.  Olivo wasn’t coming back whether the team picked up their half of the mutual option or not.  Outside of playing hard and hitting 23 HR last season (67 HR in the last 4 seasons), he doesn’t offer much else to the team on the field.  He seems like a good guy and he seems to genuinely care about his family which are huge positives in my book off the field, but those things don’t help win baseball games.  Buck also seems like he’s a good guy on and off the field.  His on the field contributions are fairly similar to those of Olivo.  After making $2.9 million last year it is a safe bet to assume that he will make in the neighborhood of $3.5 million via arbitration.  When the offseason first started I was thinking he’d make in excess of $4 million, but the market hasn’t developed as I thought it would.  The way things stand now, the Royals might have been able to get him with an offer of $3.2 or $3.3 million, avoiding arbitration all together.

Would I rather have John Buck at $3.2-3.5 million for one season, than Jason Kendall at $6 million for two seasons?  You bet I would, but I also understand the organization’s need to move on from Buck.  I get why they needed to sign someone else to play C and I get why Buck will be non-tendered today.  Those parts of the catching puzzle make sense to me.  What doesn’t make sense to me is why the team felt that Jason Kendall was the answer for not just one year, but two years.

Looking at the other options with several years of major league experience, there are two guys that stand out to me as sound investments.  Those two players are Yorvit Torrealba and soon to be non-tendered Dioner Navarro.

Before I move on, it is worth mentioning that there were several other inexperienced players who likely would have provided better returns on the field than Kendall.  Not only would they have been better on the field, they would have been younger, potentially long-term solutions, lower risk, and significantly less expensive.  One of those players was Robinzon Diaz (26) who was unconditionally released by the Pirates on November 30th.  Just over a week later he was signed to a minor league deal by the Detroit Tigers.  If the Royals also approached Diaz about a minor league deal and he had to choose between the Royals and Tigers, then he probably made the right choice.  If Dayton Moore had moved a little quicker than the Tigers, or made him a better offer, perhaps we could have been looking forward to a platoon of Brayan Pena and Robinzon Diaz.  Both players are relatively untested in the majors, but both players are young and have potential.  (Diaz is 26, and Pena turns 28 before the season starts.)  If both players failed and flamed out during the 2010 season, the Royals would have lost nothing.  The experiment would have cost them less than $1 million in salaries.   If one of the two stepped forward and solidified themselves as a legit ML caliber catcher, than the hole is filled for a couple of seasons and resources could have been focused elsewhere.  If both Pena and Diaz established themselves as ML catchers, than the team would have the option to keep the duo together for 2011, or trade one of them off to add talent elsewhere.  No matter what happened in 2010, however, the team would not have been committed to either player for 2011.  Diaz went off the market several days ago, but that doesn’t mean the team needed to sign a veteran.  Robinzon was not the only mid-20s guy with some talent available.

So let’s get back to Dioner Navarro, who will turn 26 at the end of February.  If non-tendered he could have been easily snapped up on the open market.  The Royals had one factor playing in their favor and that was the ability to offer significant playing time.  Navarro made $2.1 million last season and is arbitration eligible.  He’s coming off a season in which he had the worst BA, worst OBP, and the worst SLG of his career.  His 2009 performance coupled with the contracts being handed out to other catchers this offseason made him a “safe” arbitration risk.  Navarro’s 2010 salary is going to remain right around $2 million.  Is he as good as Jason Kendall right this second?  Probably not, though your answer hinges on whether you think his 2008 line (0.295/.349/.407)  is more representative of his ability than his 2009 line (0.218/.261/.322).  No matter what your answer is, Navarro could be a part of the Royals future beyond 2011.  Kendall, on the other hand, will have his Royals career come to an end after the 2011 season.  Navarro could fill the hole at the position.  Kendall does not fill that hole in 2010 or 2011.

What about Yorvit Torrealba?  He falls in between the career stages of Navarro and Kendall.  I wrote on the 8th that I’d give Yorvit a 3-year $11 million contract to sign with the Royals.  I acknowledge that it was a larger than necessary sum to pay, but with four other teams interested in him at the time it seemed like it would be necessary.  Turns out that he is close to returning to the Colorado Rockies on a 2-year $6 million contract.  Clearly he likes playing for Colorado, but as much as he might, I’m guessing he’d rather play everyday elsewhere.  That’s not going to happen with the Rockies since they just gave Chris Iannetta an $8.3 million 3-year extension.  Would he have come to the Royals for the same 2-year $6 million deal that he is going to end up with?  I’m guessing no, but would a 2-year $7 million deal with the primary share of playing time get it done?  If not, he’d certainly be listening more intently.  $7 million may be a lot to pay for a mediocre catcher, but the Royals just paid $6 million for a less than mediocre catcher.  Would Torrealba fill the gap at the position beyond 2011?  Just like Navarro, the answer is possibly.  He is only 31 and his home/road splits in 2009 were very similar.  He struggled against LHP in 2009 (0.220/.288/.322), but so did Jason Kendall (0.218/.340/.295).

The Royals should be trying to fill holes and upgrade the talent level.   Many people have already covered the fact that Dayton Moore’s belief that Kendall is an upgrade is dubious at best.  No matter where you fall on that part of the discussion, you cannot argue that the position of catcher is still in need of an upgrade.  The only thing that changed with the signing of Jason Kendall is that the team now has $6 million committed to the position over the next two seasons.  It’s still a hole that needs to be addressed.

(Wally Fish is Kings of Kauffman’s lead blogger.  Subscribe to his RSS feed and add him on Twitter to follow him daily.)

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dioner Navarro Jason Kendall John Buck Kansas City Royals KC Miguel Olivo MLB Robinzon Diaz Royals Yorvit Torrealba

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