The guy on the left doesn't like Barry Bonds either...
I've just finished watching the full-length, uninterrupted Jeff Kent press conference (you can watch it too at http://www.ladodgers.com/), and I think I'm ready to say something that, as a Dodger fan and a Giants nonappreciator, I never thought I'd ever say to our new (Second baseman? Third baseman? First baseman?): "Welcome to Chavez Ravine. I never liked you-- Is it the mustache? The smug attitude? The fact that you were a Giant?-- but now that the deal is done, I'm glad you're here." I might also add something along the lines of, "Now, please just hand over the keys to the motorcycle to Mr. DePodesta, keep your eyes on the scoreboard when you're at your position so you never forget how many outs are left, and let's have about 110 RBI per year during your two-year contract, okay?" Kent may well be the jerk that I, and many others who don't know him, have always supposed him to be, but as long as he keeps his mouth shut and his bat hot, and as long as he manages to coexist with Milton Bradley as a teammate in a common cause and not as one half of an ongoing Dodger Dugout Deathmatch, I look forward to seeing what he can bring to the field in 2005.
That press conference was, in my humble opinion, the real thing. It's rare to see a multimilionaire athlete approaching the end of his career react with such naked emotion-- aren't these guys supposed to be hopelessly jaded and untouchable? As a kid, he followed the Dodgers with his dad enthusiastically. And during what might be the peak years of his career, he shared a league with them and played them with genuine fire. When he spoke of both of these facts, Kent was barely able to maintain his composure. And unless you're a professional smart-ass like T.J. Simers, you may share my suspicion that this display of emotion might be evidence that the man is where he wants to be, which might translate well on Opening Day, April 5, 2005, at (whaddaya know?) SBC Park. (One fantasy scenario I can't wait to see play out is Bonds trying to beat out a throw to second, flashing kleats on his old dugout nemesis who's now wearing the hated Blue).
Of course, Kent's presence raises questions about the fate of Alex Cora, as well as DePodesta's commitment to landing Adrian Beltre. It's obvious that while Cora might be an even more natural and effective defender at second base, his numbers on offense cannot compare, and if Beltre stays it's likely that Cora will be relegated to spot starts as a replacement or to fit in with specific matchups of the kind that Jim Tracy loves to (micro)manage. But if Beltre somehow slips out of DePodesta's net, Kent provides options at third (with, presumably, Cora at second and Choi at first, or perhaps Cora, or another piece of the puzzle to be revealed later, working third), and could even stand at first with confidence, should Choi not pan out offensively. Obviously, if Beltre re-signs, the prospect of Kent playing first and Cora retaining second base, all the better to preserve those spectacular DPs in concert with Izturis, is tantalizing too, especially to a Dodger pitching staff who already knows how golden Cora's glove is. And if Beltre doesn't, Kent becomes only an adequate replacement for his pop in the lineup, unless DePodesta then turns around and uses the money he saves on Beltre to acquire another bat that would turn a lineup as good as 2004's into one that is markedly better.
The Kent deal is notable also in that it was, in this age of relentless speculation and punditry, a complete surprise to everyone feverishly following the hot stove league. I like what that says about DePodesta's ability to fashion acquistions and packages without drawing unnecessary attention (did anyone see Brad Penny coming?) and his willingness to pull the trigger on potentially alienating deals (do I really need to mention Paul LoDuca?). And that he got Kent for two years and $8.5 million is fairly remarkable. As one post on Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts blog noted, this is the only major free-agent acquistion of this year's offseason that hasn't been instantly and universally decried as ridiculously inflated.
If DePodesta does decide that Beltre is too expensive, it may have as much to do with an educated suspicion (one that I don't necesarily share) that his 2004 performance was a contract-year fluke as it does with payroll, and that Beltre, once signed and fat (it's a metaphor, dammit) and happy, might lose his focus or somehow otherwise fail to build upon the success he enjoyed last year. I only hope that DePodesta can find a way to sign him for a less outrageous sum than the ceiling might allow. Imagine, Dodger fan, getting to see how a lineup featuring Izturis, Werth, Beltre, Kent, Green and Bradley might fare in a National League West that will feature Colorado in flatline mode; San Diego with bolstered pitching (Woody Williams, along with Jake Peavy and Dodger killer Adam Eaton); Arizona hoping that Troy Glaus isn't 2005's answer to Richie Sexson and that Russ Ortiz will more resemble his Giant version than the mediocrity he was as a Brave; and San Francisco counting on their increasingly geriatric lineup to be snappy enough to get them all the way to Armando Benitez.
Yes, it gave me shivers when I first heard the news, but if the Kent acquisition is the first piece in a puzzle DePodesta will be craftily assembling this winter, then I'm going to be genuinely excited to see him slowly reveal those pieces. You don't have to like Jeff Kent to know that he could be very good for this team. Besides, anybody who has that much animosity for Barry Bonds can't be all bad, now, can he?
P.S. I'd also like to express a word of thanks to the Anaheim Angels for acquiring Steve Finley. After that grand slam at Chavez Ravine that sealed the division title on October 2, 2004, my heart might have always had a place for Finley as a Dodger. But he was asking too much for too long, and DePodesta was right to pass Finley along. He's a terrific player, and he'll be great for the Angels. And he's still in Southern California, so seeing him play won't be a difficult proposition. But I think more than anything I'm just grateful that he's the hell out of the National League West. Finley was always one of those players that I dreaded seeing come to the plate, especially in clutch situations (just ask your average Giant fan why), and he was dangling in front of Arizona, San Diego and San Francisco for a while there. So now Dodger fans can appreciate the old guy's talents from a safe distance and wish him well... that is, until the Dodgers-Angels 2005 World Series...