Three and a half years ago (good lord) I wrote about how I thought the Ian Kennedy deal was bad for the Royals. I think I was mostly right then. Kennedy for his time as a Royal has 4.40 ERA, 4.76 FIP, and accrued 4.2 WAR. He’s been paid ~$53.5M to provide that value, meaning the Royals paid ~$12M per win for Kennedy. As a starter, which is why the Royals laid out a $70M contract in front of him, he has a 4.49 ERA, 4.96 FIP, and been worth three wins, good for $17.8M per win in what they’ve laid out so far.
What’s been a revelation for Kennedy has been his turn to the bullpen this year, where he is on pace for his best season as a Royal. The contrast though is that his contract doesn’t reduce to a relievers deal, it stays owing him ~$8M for the rest of this year and ~$25M total.
Amongst qualified relievers, Kennedy has been the 15th most valuable in baseball by WAR and 8th by FIP. Clearly he’s found success in this new role. If he were on the MLB minimum, he’d be one of the best relief trade assets in baseball...but we know that isn’t the case.
That’s where his value becomes a bit more muddied. With anyone that is owed significant money and might not be quite worth that total, the question of his trade value comes down to one real question: how much is the trading team willing to pay of that deal?
Historically for the Royals, they haven’t been known to cover a large amount. They did send over cash to the Padres in the Travis Wood deal, but it’s tough to see Royals ownership sending over $20M+ to pay for another team.
Since this is 2019, we can put numbers to his value fairly simple if we stick with commonly accepted assumptions. For our purposes, let’s assume Kennedy is worth 1.5 WAR over the rest of his deal: ~0.5 wins the rest of the season and another full win next year. You can nitpick with that a bit. He’s found success in his current role and eclipse one win before the halfway mark, so maybe it should be another win this year and two more next year for three total. On the other hand, FanGraphs has him projected for just 0.2 wins the rest of the year and another 0.4 next year. But let’s just stick with 1.5 WAR.
The breakeven point for Kennedy is somewhere around the Royals paying 55% of the money remaining, roughly $13.5M. Anything below that amount works out to the team acquiring Kennedy receiving negative value. Teams shouldn’t by rule not accept negative value, they should just either expect to pay nothing for it (somewhat like a player to be named later) or receiving an offsetting positive value player in return.
It seems...unlikely the Royals are going to pay $13.5M+ to another team to take Kennedy off their hands. That would be almost paying his entire 2020 salary. That seems like a lot of money the Royals aren’t eager to wire to another clubs bank account.
If the Royals paid the entire deal, $12M in surplus for the acquiring team actually amounts to getting back somewhere around a 45+ FV hitter, which in the Royals organization is similar to Seuly Matias or MJ Melendez (they are 45 FV, so right below 45+). I think everyone would love that trade if it happened (though not all 45+ FV prospects are built the same).
In reality though, the Royals will probably pay $5M to maybe $8M would be my guess, meaning Kennedy gets acquired as a negative value player, meaning the Royals would have to add someone with positive value to offset him.
One wonders if they would include someone like Jake Diekman in a deal to help provide some offsetting positive value, however much may exist with Diekman. But even with $8M and Diekman included...it’s tough to see getting a lot back unless a team really is desperate for help and willing to trade a lot of future value for present value.
We haven’t seen that many reliever trades yet, especially not good ones with expensive contracts. Matt Wisler went from the Padres to the Mariners for cash, but he hasn’t been as good as Kennedy or as expensive. Asher Wojciechowski was also traded for cash. Arodys Vizcaino and Anthony Swarzak swapped teams for Jesse Biddle and cash. Nick Wittgren was good last year and has been better this year, but he only went for 26 year old career minor leaguer Jordan Milbrath. There just haven’t been many good relievers with bad contract swaps this year or in the winter (unless I’m missing something).
Right now Kennedy’s value rests solely on how much the Royals are willing to pay. If they pay a lot, they’ll get something useful back. If they pay nothing, they won’t get anything back unless they also include another player. The answer is probably going to be somewhere in the middle.