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Is Jason Kendall Worth $10M a Year?
2004-11-30 08:21
by Jon Weisman

The quality of the 2004 season of Jason Kendall, quite frankly, takes me by surprise.

Kendall, acquired by Oakland from Pittsburgh last week, was the fourth-most valuable catcher in baseball last season according to VORP on Baseball Prospectus, behind Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez and Jorge Posada. He also had the most Win Shares of any catcher. He had the second-highest on-base percentage of any catcher.

That being said, should you be impressed?

Winning a Most Valuable Catcher award is a lot like winning Best Smelling Pig. The distinction is no guarantee of greatness. Catcher is the least productive offensive position (combining National and American League stats), excluding pitchers, meaning if you chase a player because he's considered a quality catcher, you risk chasing rainbows.

That's not to say there aren't truly great players who happen to be catchers. But catchers should not be evaluated relative only to their peers behind the plate, but to their peers across all of baseball as well.

Kendall was the 46th-most valuable position player in baseball last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, and in the top 30 in Win Shares. Given that there are 30 major league baseball teams, this positions Kendall to be the best or second-best position player on an average major league team, which is a more meaningful credential to have.

At the same time, this credential is about the least one would want from Kendall, given his salary. His new employer will be paying him more than $10 million per year.

Kendall's contract with Pittsburgh owed him $34 million over the upcoming three seasons. In sort of a strange arrangement, the A's will give the Pirates $1 million in 2005 and $1 million in 2006 - then receive $5 million in return in 2007. Do the math, and that leaves Oakland owing Kendall $31 million over three seasons, or $10,333,333 per year.

That's a big chunk of payroll.

Still, it can certainly work out for the A's, or whomever Kendall ends up playing for should the A's trade him. Outfielders who hit like the average catcher, for example, are much cheaper and easier to acquire than catchers who hit like the average outfielder. That's the beauty of locking in a superior catcher in his prime like Kendall, who is still only 30 years old - perhaps just past his peak, perhaps not, but certainly a few years away from the expectation of a sharp decline.

Kendall suffered through two pretty miserable seasons in 2001 and 2002, and those colored my opinion of him, I have to admit, until today, I hadn't really appreciated how much he bounced back. He would be an asset to the Dodgers, even at his current salary.

At the same time, there remain those who would begrudge giving Adrian Beltre $10 million per year. But if Jason Kendall is worth $10 million a year, despite having been outperformed by a younger Beltre in 2001, 2002 and 2004, what is Beltre worth? At least the same amount, even if you factor in that getting an average major league hitter to fill a third base vacancy is cheaper than getting an average major league hitter to fill a catcher vacancy.

The bottom line, of course is ... well, there are two bottom lines. Bottom Line 1 is that you'd like your Kendalls and Beltres to come up from your farm system and become All-Stars before they earn their first million, like Albert Pujols. Bottom Line 2 is that, barring Bottom Line 1, it's nice not to have to choose between your Kendalls and your Beltres. And with the bad Dodger contracts of the past nearing expiration, if Frank McCourt can maintain the payroll, the Dodgers are getting closer to being able to do that.

In the meantime, there remain many other players - including many less expensive players - that can help a Dodger team that came within 10 victories of a World Series title in 2004.

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