The Royals have signed Ian Kennedy to a contract that ties the one they signed with Alex Gordon a few weeks ago as the richest in franchise history. For nine years the club did not hand out a contract over $35 million, and this month they have handed out two that double that. It is a very curious deal for a pitcher coming off a season with 15 losses and a 4.28 ERA, and the opt-out after two seasons is perhaps the most curious part.
Once a perk reserved only for the most elite free agents, opt-outs have become more commonplace for mid-tier free agents such as Wei-Yin Chen and Mike Leake. The opt-out comes after the 2017 season in which virtually the entire Royals club - Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Danny Duffy, Jarrod Dyson - will be eligible for free agency. The Royals may be counting on Kennedy to chose the opt-out, to preserve the financial flexibility needed to retain some of the stars like Cain or Hosmer.
However, by giving him an opt-out, the Royals get only a short-term reward, with all the liability. If Kennedy pitches well, he'll opt out after 2017 and become a free agent. If he stinks, the Royals are on the hook for a five-year contract. Its a risky gamble, but I'm not sure its a terrible one. The Royals have already had three years in their window of contention, and Kennedy helps keep the window open for two more seasons. Will it matter that there is an albatross contract on the books in 2018? It might if the Royals are serious about retaining Lorenzo Cain or Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas. But my guess is the team will rebuild completely, and declining the chance to extend Lorenzo Cain is evidence of that.
Ian Kennedy is a tough pitcher to figure out. He strikes out a lot of hitters, despite not having a blazing fastball (averages 91 mph) or any plus pitches. However, when he gets hit, he gets hit hard. Kennedy is a bit of a fly-ball pitcher, so playing in front of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jarrod Dyson (as opposed to San Diego's dreadful defense) will help, but Kennedy also had the eighth-highest line-drive rate in baseball last year.
He had a big home run spike last year, but much of that could be due to Petco Park. Of the 31 home runs Kennedy gave up, 19 came at home. Petco Park, which used to be noted as a pitcher's park, had its fences moved in and lowered slightly last season, and experienced a big spike in home runs, perhaps due to drier, warmer weather. In 2014, there were just 1.25 home runs per game at the stadium, while last year there were 2.05. Kauffman Stadium had just 1.60 home runs per game last year, lowest in the American League, so pitching in front of the fountains may help him.
Here's what Ian Kennedy's HRs allowed would have looked like in Kansas City. #Royals https://t.co/8nXJvToTw0 pic.twitter.com/jJIX2Dvu9o— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) January 16, 2016
On the other hand, Kennedy was still hit hard on the road, giving up a .468 slugging percentage (league average overall was .402). And his strikeout rate was much, much lower on the road (7.8 per-nine-innings) than in San Diego (10.8). Kennedy has struggled mightily against American League opponents in his career as well. He averaged just 5.6 innings per start last year, although with this bullpen that may not be much of an issue.
A few other quick thoughts:
If you had told me last fall the Royals would spend $140 million combined on Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy, I'm not sure I would have believed you, but I definitely would not have believed how it was allocated. The fact Kennedy got so much while Gordon received less than anticipated says a lot about the state of the free agent market. Pitchers are highly coveted (understandable when you look at next year's free agent class) while outfielders are not as highly valued as we may have thought. Then again, if Yoenis Cespedes and Jjustin Upton end up getting mega-deals in the next few days, we can just conclude that baseball is awash in money.
There is absolutely no reason to believe Dayton Moore's public pronouncements on budget. Its pretty clear his comments last fall about payroll being not significantly higher than last year's Opening Day payroll were simply a negotiating tactic to be used against Alex Gordon and other free agents. The Royals, who began last year with a $113 million payroll, will have an Opening Day payroll this April around $140 million. Only eight clubs last year had a higher Opening Day payroll. Dayton Moore has always said the Glass family has given him all the resources he needs to compete, and its clear now he meant it. The accusations of frugality directed towards David Glass should all be in the past tense now. He was cheap. Now that he has a winner, he is willing to spend.
ZIPS hates Kennedy, projecting him to be barely replacement level, while Steamer projects him to be a 2.2 WAR pitcher. I'm not one to give the Royals a a complete pass on all their moves simply for winning the World Series, but they have earned themselves a certain amount of deference. Pitching coach Dave Eiland knows Kennedy from their days with the Yankees, and perhaps he has seen something he can correct in Kennedy to get him back to the form he showed earlier in his career. Perhaps the Royals analytics team has crunched the numbers and found that having Kennedy pitch in front of this defense, in this ballpark, is a better bet than paying more for a Mike Leake or Wei Yin Chen. Perhaps Dayton Moore knows more about Kennedy's intentions and the upcoming budget to make a five-year, $70 million budget with an opt-out after two years defensible. Perhaps the scouting department knows enough about the upcoming draft class to know that giving up the 24th pick in the draft this June is not a big loss.
I hope so. I like Kennedy as a pitcher and I like that the Royals are seriously invested in doubling down and winning more championships rather than resting on their laurels. I just hope I feel the same way in 2018.