Three years ago, Dayton Moore pushed all his chips into the window of contention by signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal, tied for the largest contract in club history. While Kennedy was quite solid the first year of that deal, the next two have been pretty rough.
He has been barely over replacement level in 2017 and 2018 with a declining strikeout rate, a rising walk rate, and the third-highest home run rate in baseball. Out of the 125 starting pitchers to go at least 200 innings over the last two seasons, Kennedy ranks 14th-worst in ERA (5.06) and 8th-worst in FIP (5.17).
Those ugly numbers may mean Kennedy’s spot in the rotation is not as secure as it has been in past years. According to manager Ned Yost, the Royals may be thinking of moving Kennedy to the bullpen.
“We’ve been mulling Ian maybe moving to the ‘pen, depending on how everything goes,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “But we got to get down that road and see where we’re at.
Some of that may be Ned Yost wanting to light a fire under his veteran. Kennedy is 34 years old and Yost may be sending a message not to get too complacent. Or as Hokius pointed out in our recent podcast, it could also be motivation to the younger pitchers, to dangle another potential starting job as motivation to get them to work harder.
But there may also be legitimate reasons to move Kennedy to the pen. When asked about it, Kennedy seemed a bit hesitant, but admitted, “Now, if I’m put in that (role) because I’ve not pitched well … then you understand.” So every pitcher gets that a lackluster starting performance can mean a ticket to the bullpen.
While it shouldn’t be a factor, the $16.5 million owed to Kennedy this year could keep him in the rotation. The Royals may look to salvage some value from Kennedy, hoping he can revert to be at least the 1.6 fWAR pitcher he was in 2016, the first year of his deal. However, the money will be paid to Kennedy regardless of what he does, making it a sunk cost. And no matter what, he seems unlikely to be worth $16.5 million this year.
So the Royals need to put him in the best role to succeed, and that could actually be in the bullpen. If you look at his splits last year, he got into a lot of trouble when he faced a lineup for the second time. That is true for most starting pitchers, but it was especially true for Kennedy. When he went through a lineup for the first time, his opponent’s OPS was .689, slightly lower than the league average of .700 the first time through a lineup. When the lineup faced him a second time, their OPS was .971. Out of 162 pitchers who faced at least 100 hitters a second time through, that was dead last. Oddly, he was one of the best pitchers the third time through a lineup, although he had a low total of innings as he didn’t get through the third time as much as a lot of other starters.
Many starters have moved to the bullpen and become effective, even dominant relievers, such as Luke Hochevar, and most famously Wade Davis. Kennedy is still a fairly high-strikeout pitcher, and in one-inning stints he might be able to dominate. As Yost pointed out, “He’s a guy that can strike guys out with his fastball. He’s a guy that we think that type of workload might keep him healthier than he has (been) in the past.”
Kennedy has been a pretty durable workhorse, but last year he suffered an oblique injury that limited him to just 22 starts, the lowest total in a season for him since 2009. He also suffered a hamstring injury in 2017 that limited his effectiveness. A move to the bullpen may help the 34-year old stay on the mound.
Moving Kennedy to the bullpen would also open up an additional rotation spot that could be used to get a longer look at a younger pitcher. Danny Duffy, Jake Junis, and Brad Keller are seemingly locked in to rotation spots, but if Kennedy is not in the rotation, that could open up starts for guys like Jorge Lopez, Heath Fillmyer, Trevor Oaks, Scott Barlow, Ben Lively, and even dark horse candidates like Arnaldo Hernandez, Jake Kalish, or perhaps even Brady Singer later in the year.
On the other hand, many of those young pitchers are not yet ready for the big leagues. And let’s be honest, other than Singer - who has yet to pitch a professional inning - none of these pitchers are high-upside prospects that demand pushing Kennedy out of a job. Most of them have pretty mediocre numbers in the minors or other red flags that put doubt on their ability to be solid Major League contributors.
Still, in a rebuild (it’s not a rebuild!) season, it makes sense to get a look at as many young players as you can. Brad Keller and Ryan O’Hearn weren’t considered solid prospects a year ago, and now they look like part of the future now that they got a chance and impressed given the opportunity. Ian Kennedy, even if he resurrects his career and has a terrific season, is not part of the Royals’ future. He’ll be long gone once the Royals are good again, and his contract is large enough to make him virtually untradeable in this market.
Ultimately a move will require some buy-in from Kennedy. He has made just two relief appearances in his career, very early on, when he was still breaking in with the Yankees. He says some of the right things in being open to it, telling Rustin Dodd, “If it helps us win games, it’s something I think everybody wouldn’t mind doing.” But it also sounds like he would only do it in a high-leverage role, such as an eighth-inning set up man or even closer.
“Honestly, throwing out of a relief role where you don’t really know your role, that’s not appealing.”
Yost seems to be pretty good at getting all of his guys on the same page, but it will be interesting to see how they handle Kennedy. It still seems likely he would begin the season in the rotation, but the fact the Royals are even discussing moving him is a positive sign that they they will do what is best for the long-term prospect of this organization, even if it means moving veterans into less glamorous roles.
Should Ian Kennedy be moved to the bullpen?
This poll is closed
Not yet, but maybe later this year
No, he’s a starter