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Wednesday, December 18
Updated: December 19, 2:46 PM ET
The deal: Kent's arrival pushes Biggio to outfield

Associated Press

HOUSTON -- Jeff Kent and the Houston Astros agreed Wednesday to an $18.2 million, two-year contract, a move that forces Gold Glove second baseman Craig Biggio to move to the outfield.

Wed., Dec. 18
Signing Jeff Kent ought to help the Astros' offensive production, although he had the advantage for at least half of last season of batting in front of Barry Bonds. I figure Kent will bat fifth behind Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman, giving Houston as potent a middle of the lineup as any team in the National League.

With Kent at second base, Craig Biggio will move to the outfield. Biggio had lost range at second base since having knee surgery, but he still has good speed. He has already made one position change, from catcher to second base, and became a Gold Glover.

The Astros will use spring training as a time to experiment. I think they'd prefer to play Berkman, a decent outfielder, in left and Biggio in center, but they could keep Berkman in center if the experiment doesn't work. With enough reps, though, I expect Biggio to make the adjustment because he's a great athlete.

The Astros finished 13 games behind St. Louis last season. Combined with their young pitching, the Kent signing should help them close ground on the Cardinals, who have a lot of pitching question marks after Matt Morris and Woody Williams. It's a good deal for the Astros and Kent, whose offseason home is in Spicewood, Texas, within 200 miles of Houston.

The 34-year-old Kent, who won the NL MVP award two years ago, hit .313 last season with 37 homers and 108 RBI, helping San Francisco win its first NL pennant since 1989.

"This was not in our plan, was not in our budget and was not on our radar screen,'' Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "I would dare say, after Nolan Ryan, this is the most significant free-agent acquisition that this franchise has ever acquired.''

Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Kent combine to give the Astros a formidable middle of the lineup.

"This team has an opportunity to do some great things,'' Kent said.

Kent, who said he fell in love with Texas when his Cal-Berkeley team visited Austin in the 1980s, now lives in the state capital and has a ranch south of San Antonio. Consequently, he said, the Astros were on his radar screen long before he was on theirs.

"I sent (agent Jeff Klein) to Tennessee and said, 'Go get me to Houston, will you?''' Kent said, referring to baseball's winter meetings in Nashville earlier this week. He called his decision a "no brainer,'' adding he prefers the direction the Astros are headed as opposed to that of the Giants, citing manager Dusty Baker's tumultuous departure several times.

He injured a wrist during spring training last season and fought with Barry Bonds during a game. Yet Kent had a chance to return to the Giants, who offered salary arbitration. He had until Thursday to accept San Francisco's offer.

"There is no doubt that I will look back fondly on my years in a Giants' uniform,'' Kent said. "San Francisco is where I blossomed as a ballplayer and achieved many of the goals I set for myself when I was drafted by Toronto in 1989. My family and I have also developed deep community ties in San Francisco, and I know that we all will miss this wonderful city.''

San Francisco had prepared for Kent's departure by signing Ray Durham, who can play second base and the outfield, and Edgardo Alfonzo, who can play second or third.

Kent will play second base with the Astros, Hunsicker said. Biggio, a four-time Gold Glove winner, will shift to the outfield. Biggio began his career as a catcher.

"He's already made one position change that didn't turn out too bad,'' said Hunsicker, who hasn't had a chance to speak with Biggio about the move to the outfield.

The player most affected by the move is outfielder Daryle Ward, who had a disappointing 2002 season. With Biggio and Berkman penciled in at left and center, though it's not determined who plays which, Hunsicker said right is Richard Hidalgo's for now, with Ward and prospect Jason Lane also battling for the job.

Biggio's agent, Barry Axelrod, said his client planned to meet with Astros manager Jimy Williams on Wednesday night.

Axelrod and Biggio had previously discussed a possible move to the outfield in the context of possible talks for a contract extension, and Biggio even played a game there last season when the Astros had injuries.

"It's a little scary doing that going into the last year of your contract,'' Axelrod said. "If there's anyone who could make that switch, it's Craig, he's done it before.''

The Bash Boys
The Astros' projected lineup for the 2003 season:

Julio Lugo, SS
Craig Biggio, CF
Lance Berkman, LF
Jeff Bagwell, 1B
Jeff Kent, 2B
R. Hidalgo/D. Ward, RF
G. Blum/M. Ensberg, 3B
Brad Ausmus, C

"(Biggio) is a professional, he's a competitor and I think he and everyone wants to maximize the chance of winning,'' said Tal Smith, the club's president of baseball operations. Officials said Biggio was hunting in South Texas and, because the deal materialized so quickly between meetings in Tennessee and Houston, no one was able to get his input.

"If it were someone other than Craig, it's going to be a problem,'' said Berkman, who had to move from first base to the outfield to get into the Houston lineup. "Because of the type of person Bidge is, I just feel like (his outfield play) will be smooth by the time we're done with spring training.''

Smith, who signed Ryan in 1979, said Kent's arrival surpasses that of the Hall of Fame pitcher as the biggest free agent acquisition in club history.

The Astros went 84-78 and finished second to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central last season. Until word of the Kent negotiations surfaced this week, talk radio bristled with complaints that the Astros weren't willing to spend the type of money to be more than competitive.

"We're trying to reward the fans by playing better and going to the World Series and winning it,'' owner Drayton McLane Jr. said.

Kent, a three-time All-Star, has a .289 career average with 253 homers and 1,007 RBI. He hit .269 with three homers and eight RBI in the postseason, hitting three home runs against Anaheim in the World Series.

He gets a $3 million signing bonus, payable $1 million each on March 1, July 1 next year, and March 1, 2004.

Kent gets a $6 million salary for 2003, of which $2 million is deferred to March 1, 2005, and $3 million to July 1, 2005. He gets an $8.5 million salary for 2004, of which $2 million is deferred to March 1, 2006, and $3.5 million to July 1, 2006.

Houston has a $9 million option for 2005 with a $700,000 buyout. The signing vaults the Astros over the $60 million they had anticipating spending until owner McLane gave the go-ahead on Kent.

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