Kent Departs the Giants to Sign Deal With Astros

Times Staff Writer

Even as the Dodgers continued to wrestle with their trade and free-agent options on Wednesday, their division outlook may have improved.

No longer will Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent provide double trouble in the middle of the San Francisco Giants' lineup.

Amid the chill of the free-agent market, Kent agreed to a two-year, $17.5-million contract with the Houston Astros. The deal includes a third-year vesting option for $9 million or a $700,000 buyout.

As the only second baseman to drive in 100 or more runs for six consecutive seasons, Kent will trade Bonds for Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman in the middle of the Houston lineup and will evict Craig Biggio from second base.

Houston officials acknowledged they had yet to reach Biggio, who was on a hunting trip, but were confident the one-time catcher would accept another move to left or center field.

"This wasn't about acquiring a better second baseman than we already had," General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "It was about making the Astros better."

Hunsicker said that Kent represented "our most significant free-agent signing since Nolan Ryan" in 1980 and, with Bagwell and Berkman, "there won't be a National League team with a more dangerous 3-4-5 combination."

Kent batted .313 with 37 homers and 108 RBIs while helping the Giants win the NL pennant. Dodger General Manager Dan Evans refused to address how Kent's departure would impact his division rival.

"I don't like to talk about another team in that regard," he said. "Obviously, he's a very attractive player and I had numerous conversations with [agent] Jeff Klein, but we simply didn't have the resources.

"His contract with Houston represents a $9.1 million [average annual value], and that would have put us well over the [payroll tax] threshold with multiple moves still to be made."

In a Houston news conference, Kent, who spends the off-season on his ranch near Austin, Texas, refused to say if he had other suitors.

The Giants had offered salary arbitration, but once they signed Edgardo Alfonzo to a four-year, $26-million contract -- on top of signing free agents Marquis Grissom and Ray Durham -- their budget was basically blown and Kent's departure was far from a surprise.

Still, parting was difficult, even though club officials often seemed fed up with Kent's tenuous relationship with Bonds and were angered by his spring motorcycle accident and subsequent failure to tell the truth about it.

"To say we'll miss him is an understatement," Assistant General Manager Ned Colletti said by phone. "He was a true Giant. He played every day, he played hard and his numbers speak for themselves. It's unfortunate that it largely came down to a matter of timing."

Under pressure from Alfonzo's agent Sunday at the winter meetings and unable to reach an agreement with Kent, the Giants were fearful of losing both players, Colletti said, and opted for the sure thing in Alfonzo. Colletti would not reveal what the Giants offered Kent. However, a source familiar with their talks said that while the average value was slightly less than the Houston offer, it spanned three years with a vesting option for a fourth year and a mutual option for a fifth.

Kent said Wednesday that the talks with the Giants "didn't go as smoothly as they did with other clubs" and he simply couldn't make a decision on what may be his last contract under the deadline pressure the Giants were applying.

"This is a chance to win, be home and be wanted," he said of his signing with the Astros. "The World Series ended in bitterness [with the loss to the Angels]. This was the best fit and best opportunity to satisfy that bitterness."

Often critical of the difficulty of hitting in Pacific Bell Park, he lauded Minute Maid Park and said, "My style has evolved into that of a run producer. On this team, I could hit anywhere between second and eighth and be a run producer."

Meantime, the Giants' roster has experienced an upheaval.

In addition to the departures of Kent and Manager Dusty Baker, third baseman David Bell left as a free agent, Russ Ortiz was traded and Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Tom Goodwin and Shawon Dunston were not offered salary arbitration, ending their tenure.

The Giants have a budget of $75 million and have 16 players signed for $73 million, meaning the turnover may continue.

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