Friday, July 8, 2011

With Jason Kendall's Career Likely Over, A Look Back

On September 1st of 2010, the Royals announced that starting catcher, and former Pittsburgh All-Star, Jason Kendall would undergo surgery to repair a tear in his right rotator cuff. The surgery was expected to keep him out for the rest of the 2010 campaign, and probably the first month or two of the 2011 season.

In early March Kendall was feeling good during his rehab and making some bold proclamations about wanting to be ready to go at the outset of the season. When it became apparent however that this wasn't realistic, the team made the move to bring in Rangers backstop Matt Treanor to share the catching duties with Brayan Pena. The two have done an admirable job filling in for Kendall as each has exceeded his career triple-slash line.

As the months ticked away without much word on the subject however, it became apparent that Kendall's rehab was not going as planned. Sadly yesterday it was revealed that two new tears in his right rotator cuff, essentially dooming his 2011 season, and likely ending his career.

As mentioned before, Kendall was once an All-Star caliber receiver who, over a span of four seasons from 1997 to 2000 never posted an OPS worse than .825, or stealing fewer than 18 bases. While he never hit for a significant amount of homerun power, Kendall worked the gaps hard during that stretch, becoming a regular fixture of the 30 double club, making him about as close a thing as there is to a five-tool catcher.

Beyond the impressive offensive numbers, Kendall was one of the games best defensive catchers. He smothered balls as well as anyone in the game, called a good game, and threw out runners at impressive clips. That total package of of offense and defense saw him post a phenomenal 20.0 WAR during those four seasons despite missing more than half of the 1999 season to injury. Only 25 other players were more valuable through those four seasons - and the list reads like a Hall-Of-Fame for the 90's.

Unfortunately as is the case for so many catchers, injuries began to take their toll on Kendall and his game declined rather quickly after the 2000 season. He'd go on top post an OPS over .800 just once more in his career during the 2003 season, and was finally traded by the Pirates - the organization he had spent his entire career with - following the 2004 season.

In terms of personal performance, Kendall's two seasons in Oakland were largely unsuccessful as he never posted an OPS above .710, but he did get an opportunity to catch one of the decades finest pitching staffs, and his work as a leader behind the plate helped the team to the post season (Kendall's first trip ever) in 2006. He'd go on to collect 8 hits - seven singles - in that series, and help bring the low-budget A's to the brink of the World Series.

Despite his role in their 2006 run however, the A's would go on to trade Kendall to the Cubs just prior to the trade deadline in 2007. At the time, Kendall was mired in his worst start ever, hitting just .226 with a hideous .542 OPS. Following the trade however he would go on to post a .718 mark over the final two and a half months and once again made it to the post season. He'd make just one start however, going 1-4, before the Cubs were dispatched.

While he finished the 2006 season strong for the Cubs, it wasn't enough to convince them to bring him back and he'd instead go on to sign with the Brewers, where he'd spend the next two seasons. The power and speed he once had were long since sapped by this point in his career, and the former all-star was a shell of his former self, but his intangible abilities behind the plate and in the clubhouse kept him around, and in 2008, his first season with the Brewers, he'd once again help his team into the playoffs. After ten seasons without a trip to the playoffs, Kendall would be making his third.

That was the Brewers team that had acquired Indians ace C.C. Sabathia at the deadline and made a headlong rush over the second half into the playoffs. Unfortunately for Kendall it would once again end before the team could reach the World Series as the Brewers were dispatched by the Phillies in the first round.

Kendall would go on to spend one more year with the Brewers, then signed as a free agent with the Royals for two years. It appears increasingly unlikely that Kendall will play another game in the Majors, but during the first year of that contract Kendall wound up doing essentially what he had started his career doing: he helped a young team that was struggling to find itself. Except this time instead of being it's best player on the field, he was trying to help them in the kinds of ways that only an experienced player who's seen the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows could.

Gregarious until the very end, one of my fondest memories will have been of Kendall handing his elbow pad to an overly eager reporter wanting to see what it was like to get hit by a pitch. The consumate career professional and wise veteran may be bemoaned by some for what he couldn't be at the end of his career, but if you look beyond the declining offensive numbers he posted as his career wound down, you'll see a man who never stopped finding ways to contribute to a baseball team, regardless of what his body was trying to tell him.

And that speaks volumes to the quality of the character of the man. If this really is the end, hats off to a wonderful career Jason.

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