Displaying quick-strike ability after weeks of near idleness in the free-agent market, the Dodgers on Thursday signed infielder Jeff Kent, a four-time All-Star, to a two-year contract worth $17 million before most baseball executives had even checked into their hotel rooms for the winter meetings.
The suddenness of the signing enabled Kent to surprise his parents, who took seats in the front row for the news conference at the Anaheim Marriott without knowing the reason their son was at the dais.
Kent, 36, donned a Dodger cap and jersey, said a few words, then choked up.
"I grew up with my dad taking me to Dodger games," he said.
He mentioned admiring Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey, and at this point it is uncertain which position played by those former Dodger stars he could inherit. Although Kent has been primarily a second baseman throughout his 13-year career, he is willing to play first or third base should the need arise.
"He has definite versatility and affords us tremendous flexibility in the way we approach the off-season," Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta said. "He will play somewhere in the infield."
Re-signing third baseman Adrian Beltre remains a priority, but there are indications that he wants more than the Dodgers are willing to give. Baseball sources said Beltre is seeking a seven-year contract, and his agent, Scott Boras, has told the Dodgers that several teams are very interested.
DePodesta, in his first off-season with the Dodgers, has hinted that seven years might be too long for his tastes.
"Signing [Kent] makes me less concerned" about re-signing Beltre, he said. "But we are one of the bidders, and we have ample spending power. This doesn't preclude us from signing Adrian."
Moving to third base would be a major transition for Kent -- he hasn't played there in nine years -- and one that would appear to be a last resort. If he doesn't play second, where slick-fielding Alex Cora is the incumbent, Kent is more likely to move to first base, where Hee-Seop Choi is expected to get a long look.
Kent, who holds the record for career home runs by a second baseman, said he just wants to know which position to run out to by the beginning of spring training.
"I'm too old and care too much about winning to worry about the petty things," he said. "I believe I'm a great second baseman. It adds value that I am able to play first or third."
Kent played for the Houston Astros the last two seasons and equaled his career batting average in 2004, hitting .289 with 27 homers and 107 runs batted in. He hit a dramatic three-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League championship series to beat the St. Louis Cardinals.
Nevertheless, the Astros declined his $9-million salary for next season by paying a $700,000 buyout and offered him a one-year contract for $7 million. He turned it down despite expressing a desire to return to the team. The Astros did not offer him arbitration, so the Dodgers will not forfeit a draft pick as compensation.
Dodger Manager Jim Tracy was excited about adding a proven slugger. Kent was the National League most valuable player in 2000 with San Francisco, and he helped the Giants reach the World Series in 2002. He has 302 home runs and is 16th on the active list with 1,207 RBIs. He has driven in more than 100 runs every season but one since 1997.
"I studied the games played and runs produced on his resume," Tracy said. "That tells us all we need to know. He lives for the big moment."
Kent's signing was a moment to remember for his parents, Alan and Sherry, who live in Temecula. They grew up in Anaheim, attending Loara High -- "All our dates were at Disneyland," Alan said -- and raised their children in Huntington Beach.
Despite the proximity to Angel Stadium, they were Dodger fans. Kent said he came close to signing with the Dodgers two years ago and also before his last deal with the Giants. He hinted that this contract might be his last.
"This is the third time I've tried to get with the Dodgers," he said. "I want to be on a team with the potential to win because I'm running out of time. This team has that mentality.
"Paul gave me an indication that there are more [signings] to come. They are dedicated to doing better than what they did last year."
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Jeff Kent File
* Height, weight: 6-1, 210.
* Bats, throws: right.
*--* Year Team AB HR RBI AVG 1992 Tor., NYM 305 11 50 239 1993 N.Y. Mets 496 21 80 270 1994 N.Y. Mets 415 14 68 292 1995 N.Y. Mets 472 20 65 278 1996 NYM, Cle. 437 12 55 284 1997 San Fran. 580 29 121 250 1998 San Fran. 526 31 128 297 1999 San Fran. 511 23 101 290 2000 San Fran. 587 33 125 334 2001 San Fran. 607 22 106 298 2002 San Fran. 623 37 108 313 2003 Houston 505 22 93 297 2004 Houston 540 27 107 289 Total 6,604 302 1,207 289