Whenever Jason Kendall craves therapeutic relaxation in the off-season, he steps out of his Manhattan Beach, Calif., house, plunges into the Pacific Ocean and hops on his surfboard. "Out there on the water," he says, "that's my escape."
In November, Kendall discovered a new method of escape, one that didn't require a wet suit. His agent called him with news that the Pirates, the only organization for which he had played, had arranged to send him to the Athletics for pitchers Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. All that remained was for Kendall to waive his no-trade clause. "There was nothing to think about," he says. "I had a chance to win [if I waived it]. It was that simple."
As a Pirate for nine seasons, Kendall never played on a winning team--the second longest such streak among active players. During Kendall's stay, Pittsburgh never finished fewer than five games out of first place and was on average 17.4 games under .500. So while baseball pundits may question Oakland's competitiveness after its unloading of starters Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder a few weeks after the Pittsburgh deal, Kendall sounds as if he has joined the 1927 Yankees.
"Night and day," he says about his switch in teams. "In Pittsburgh we used to hope we might contend. Here, they expect it. I know I have a chance to be in a pennant race in September. That's all you can ask for. You can feel the confidence here right away."
Under G.M. Billy Beane, the A's have earned a reputation for steadfastly believing in on-base percentage, but over the past three seasons they have finished fifth, 10th and fifth in the American League in that statistic. Kendall's career .387 OBP is higher than that of every catcher in the Hall of Fame except Mickey Cochrane, and his .306 batting average is 14th best among active players.
" Kendall's amazing," says third baseman Eric Chavez. "In batting practice everything he hits is a line drive right up the middle or over the second baseman's head. Everything. He's a perfect fit for our lineup."
Hitting second, behind centerfielder Mark Kotsay, who had a career-best .370 OBP last season, Kendall should present more RBI chances for designated hitter Erubiel Durazo and Chavez in the heart of Oakland's order. The A's used eight number 2 hitters last season and ranked ninth in the American League in runs scored from that slot. They ranked ninth in the AL in runs and, for the first time since 1999, failed to reach the postseason.
An improved offense, along with a deeper bullpen, will be vital for Oakland, which has a shaky rotation for the first time in years. Mulder, Hudson and lefthander Barry Zito had been the bedrock of the franchise's recent success--or at least they were until they went a collective 2--8 during a 10--17 swoon at the end of last season--combining for nearly 51% of the team's wins over the past five years. In 2004 the A's starters threw more innings (1,0302/3) than any other rotation in the majors, ranked second in the AL in ERA (4.24) and opponents' batting average (.266), and went seven or more innings 74 times. Oakland was 50--24 in those games.
That kind of security is gone for manager Ken Macha. Behind Zito are righthanders Rich Harden (8--2, 3.49 in the second half last year), 23, Danny Haren, 24, and Joe Blanton, 24, none of whom have thrown 200 innings in a season. The 30-year-old Kendall has the experience to help ease their development.
"If they can go five or six innings, I like our chances," Chavez says. "You hope they grow up quickly and make the adjustments. We're not a team built to score eight runs a game, but if they keep us in games, we have a chance of winning. We've got talent, and hopefully that will get us through it. I know people are saying we lost Mark and Huddy, but believe me, this team is confident. Very confident."