Several weeks ago, a reader requested a Prospect Retrospective for second baseman Jeff Kent, asking for a look at what he was like as a prospect and where he stands in historical context.
Jeff Kent played baseball at the University of California Berkeley, where he played shortstop. He wasn't a hot prospect on draft day in 1989, lasting until the 20th round where he was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays. Sent to St. Catherine's in the New York-Penn League, he hit just .224 in 73 games but showed good power with 13 homers. He drew some walks (33) but also fanned 81 times in 268 at-bats, a very high total. He split his fielding time between shortstop and third base, struggling at both positions.
The defensive issue was resolved in 1990, the Blue Jays moving him to second base at High-A Dunedin; he fit well at the position. He also showed dramatic offensive improvement despite the more difficult level of competition, hitting .277/.360/.465 with 16 homers, 32 doubles, 17 steals, and a 53/98 BB/K ratio in 447 at-bats. His strikeout rate came way down; his batting average and OBP moved up. He also made the Florida State League All-Star team, and was ranked as the sixth-best prospect in the circuit by Baseball America.
The guys ahead of him, by the way, were Ivan Rodriguez, right-handed pitcher Jeff Juden, a southpaw named Denis Boucher, a first baseman named Nikco Riesgo, and Kenny Lofton.
Moved up to Double-A Knoxville for 1991, Kent remained productive with a .256/.379/.418 line, hitting 12 homers with 34 doubles, stealing 25 bases, and drawing 80 walks against 104 strikeouts in 445 at-bats. His defense was sloppy with 29 errors, but his broad range of offensive skills still made him an intriguing prospect.
Aside from a brief rehab stint in 2003, Kent never returned to the minor leagues.
He opened 1992 with the Blue Jays and saw sporadic action until being traded to the Mets for David Cone. He emerged as a regular in 1993 with 21 homers and a .270/.320/.446 line. As you know, he was a major league regular for the next 16 seasons, being especially productive during his tenure with the Giants. He was unpopular and controversial, but he was an outstanding player. His weakest season with the Giants was either 1999, which still resulted in a 3.6 WAR and a 123 wRC+, or 1997 (104 wRC+ but 4.1 WAR due to good defensive play).
Those would be career years for a lot of guys.
His peak campaigns were 2000 (.334/.424/.596, wRC+ 159, 7.4 WAR) and 2002 (.313/.368/.565, wRC+ 147, 6.8 WAR). Although age and injuries eventually drove his production down, he still managed to hit .280 at age 40 in 2008.
On the surface, it may seem that Kent greatly exceeded what he did as a prospect, but the shape of the skills he showed in the majors (notably unusual power for a middle infielder) was present in his minor league record, just in immature form.
Overall, Kent hit .290/.356/.500 in his big league career, with 377 homers, OPS+ 123, wRC+ 123, and a career WAR of 56.6. The pro-hitting nature of the era in which he played boosted his counting stat totals, and his bluntness, irascibility, and quick temper made him a difficult clubhouse presence. On the other hand, he also showed an outstanding work ethic. Ellis Burks, among others, felt that Kent was misunderstood.
Kent was vocally and publicly opposed to using steroids and suggested tougher testing policies before it was politically correct to do so. Unlike many stars of his time, he played clean and would have been an excellent producer at any point in history.
Kent's WAR value of 56.6 ranks him 17th all time among second basemen, in the area with Joe Gordon (60.6), Jackie Robinson (57.2), Billy Herman (55.0), still-active Chase Utley (54.6), and Bobby Doerr (53.3). The retired men are all Hall of Famers, and Kent will be too.