Royals ink free agent Kendall
Veteran in line to be starting backstop in Kansas City
KANSAS CITY -- The Royals' legwork during the Winter Meetings paid off on Friday when they signed free-agent catcher Jason Kendall to a two-year, $6 million contract.
Kendall joins the Royals after two years with the Milwaukee Brewers. The veteran backstop, 35, is expected to take over as the Royals' primary catcher following the departure of Miguel Olivo into the free-agent pool. The signing also makes it likely that the Royals will not tender catcher John Buck a contract by Saturday's 11 p.m. CT deadline.
The Royals also have catchers Brayan Pena and Manuel Pina on the Major League roster and veteran Vance Wilson is also among the non-roster candidates for the job.
General manager Dayton Moore said: "Obviously John Buck's been a big part of our catching corps the last few years and we'll have to make that decision, but it's safe to say Jason Kendall was brought in to be our everyday catcher and he's expected to catch 120 to 130-plus games."
That wouldn't leave much time for Buck, who earned $2.9 million last season and would be expected to leap far beyond that if he goes to salary arbitration. The Royals likely wouldn't want to pay a backup catcher more than Kendall next year.
The son of Fred Kendall, a Kansas City coach in 2006-07, Kendall has been following the Royals and was impressed in particular by the young arms on the pitching staff.
"I've definitely kept my eye on them for a while and my father was there a couple years ago and he was talking about some of the players that are coming up," Kendall said. "It's one of those teams that's intriguing and ready to take the next step."
A 14-year Major Leaguer, the right-handed batter has a career average of .290 in 1,967 games. He's not a power hitter -- 75 homers -- but has an on-base percentage of .369. Earlier in his career, he often batted in the leadoff spot, unusual for a catcher, and has 177 stolen bases.
"He still runs well for catcher. You're not going to have to pinch-run for him," Moore said. "But, he's not going to have the speed he once had before that severe ankle injury in 1999."
The Royals went into the meetings at Indianapolis last Monday checking the market for a catcher, a left-handed starter and bullpen help, but the signing of Kendall is the first tangible result.
They also were linked to Ivan Rodriguez, Rod Barajas and Jose Molina. After Rodriguez got his two-year contract at age 38, the ceiling went up a bit for veteran backstops and Kendall got a similar deal. His chances of returning to the Brewers faded when they signed Gregg Zaun.
"I've got a lot left and I don't think I have to prove anything to anybody except myself," Kendall said. "I've got a lot a lot to prove to myself. No. 1, taking this pitching staff and getting them to where they need to be. That's my first priority. But No. 2, offensively, I haven't had had the numbers at all I wanted in the last three years and I'm excited to have the opportunity to be the offensive player I once was."
In 2009, Kendall batted .241 with two homers and 43 RBIs. His last big year was 2006 when he batted .295 for the Oakland A's.
Kendall played nine years for Pittsburgh and holds the Pirates' record for games caught, 1,205. Traded to Oakland, he spent 2½ years with the A's and a half season with the Chicago Cubs before signing with Milwaukee.
Last year, he caught 133 games for the Brewers, making eight errors with four passed balls and an unofficial 20 percent success rate on basestealers (16-for-80). That latter mark was down from the previous year's 43 percent (41-for-96), but that didn't concern Moore.
"There's been no change in arm strength, no change in release times. That remains consistent so it's a product a lot of times of the individual matchup -- who the base-runner is and the delivery time of the pitcher," Moore said. "Defensively, he's regarded as one of the better receivers and game-callers and his blocking skills are very good as well."
That could help because a big problem for the Royals last year was pitches rolling toward the backstop; they led the Majors in that category with 89 wild pitches and 14 passed balls.
Moore expects Kendall to be a mentor to young pitchers and catchers. That aspect appeals to Kendall, who knows a big league education is not easy.
"I had a father who played in the big leagues catching-wise for about 12 years and it took me about six, seven years to figure out how to call a game," he said. "Watch the hitter's feet, watch the hitter's hands. Good hitters in the big league change night-by-night, day-by-day. And it took me a while to figure that out."
Although Kendall has hit as many as 14 homers in a season (2000 for the Pirates), he once went 961 consecutive at-bats with a dinger until he connected on May 31, 2006, at Oakland against the Royals' Joel Peralta.
That was a busy year for Kendall. He became the first Major Leaguer to catch at least 140 games in a season eight times, he got a four-game suspension for charging the mound after the Angels' John Lackey and he reached the postseason for the first time, with the A's. He's since also been in the playoffs with the Cubs and the Brewers.
He made the first of three All-Star appearances with the Pirates as a rookie and in 2000 was the starting National League catcher in place of the injured Mike Piazza.
Kendall has a knack for getting hit by pitches -- 248 times, fifth most in MLB history -- and for getting hit by suspensions -- he's served penalty time at least four times for on-field altercations.
"In a 14-year career, a lot of things happen but he's a no-nonsense player, we all know that," Moore said. "He's an old-school-type player."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.