When the Royals moved Ian Kennedy to the bullpen, it seemed to mark a rock-bottom moment for the right-hander’s value. Kennedy was owed a total of $33MM from 2019-20 after a two-year stretch in which he logged a 5.06 ERA and 5.17 FIP. He was being taken out of a rebuilding team’s rotation in favor of Homer Bailey, another veteran whose underperforming contract was being paid off by another team.
Fast forward a couple of months, and not much has gone right with the Royals’ pitching staff, but the Kennedy bullpen experiment has been nothing short of excellent. While teams still won’t be interested in his contract, they may have interest in acquiring Kennedy if the Royals are willing to pay down some of the salary.
It’s only 19 2/3 innings, but Kennedy has a 3.20 ERA with a 23-to-2 K/BB ratio and a 47 percent ground-ball rate out of the bullpen. His average fastball has jumped from 91.9 mph to 93.4 mph now that he’s working in short stints. Perhaps there’s reason to be skeptical of the strikeout rate given a lack of swinging strikes, but Kennedy is also among the league leaders in weak contact induced. Opponents are averaging just 84.7 mph in terms of exit velocity against him, and Statcast pegs his .266 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) in the 86th percentile league-wide.
Kennedy has dropped his changeup entirely in favor of a four-seam/curveball/cutter arsenal that has proven to be more effective than his prior pitch mix. While his curve has never been a source of many whiffs, Kennedy is suddenly sporting a 17.7 percent swinging-strike rate on the pitch — up substantially from the roughly nine percent mark he posted in the three prior seasons. He’s altered his release point on his curve and picked up more movement than he’s seen in recent seasons, which has not only led to misses but also quite a few more ground-balls (55 percent). Kennedy’s curve hasn’t generated great results yet (both the homers hit against him this season have come on the pitch) but the .444 average on balls in play opponents have recorded against that offering figures to regress.
Prior to Opening Day, Kennedy would’ve been the type of arm one would expect to receive a minor league contract and a Spring Training invite in a free-agent setting, but he now looks more like a reliever who’d command a reasonably significant big league deal. If he can sustain this output or even improve upon it, he could even be the type of pitcher who’d command a two-year pact in a theoretical open market. He doesn’t have the track record for clubs to look at him as a David Robertson/Andrew Miller type that’d make $11-12MM per year, but we’ve seen quite a few two-year deals in the $4-7MM annual salary range in recent offseasons — even for pitchers who don’t have lengthy track records (e.g. Jesse Chavez, Brandon Kintzler, Anthony Swarzak).
It’s suddenly not crazy to think that in a couple months’ time, teams could view Kennedy as reliever worth paying $5-7MM per season. Some teams may already be starting to think that way. If the Royals were willing to pay down $10-11MM of next season’s $16.5MM salary (and the prorated equivalent of that sum for the remainder of the 2019 campaign), Kennedy could suddenly be movable. Being movable is different than having much in the way of positive trade value, but the very fact that it appears possible is a nice, somewhat unexpected development for Kansas City.
And if the Royals were willing to pay down even more of that sum, perhaps they could pry a decent return out of the whole deal. No team is going to give up anything of value just for the right to pay Kennedy at what could be the high end of his market value, no matter how well he throws between now and July 31. If the Royals pay him down to the point where he’s only owed a couple million dollars in 2019 and 2020, though, surplus value could be created.
There has already been a bit of chatter involving Kennedy, though there’s no indication of actual trade talks. Recent suggestions of some type of deal involving Dominic Smith don’t make any sense to me, even if Smith is blocked by Pete Alonso in New York. But if Kennedy can sustain his bullpen renaissance — and the numbers suggest that he can — then the Royals can score some salary relief and maybe even a mid-range prospect or two this summer. This outcome isn’t what they were anticipating when they signed Kennedy, but it’s about as good as they could’ve hoped for when they moved him to the ’pen.