The Royals announced yesterday that they will utilize veteran right-hander Ian Kennedy as a reliever this year, as Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star was among those to report.
Kennedy, 34, says he’s up for the switch despite having made only a pair of prior relief appearances way back in 2008-09. In the intervening nine seasons, Kennedy has taken the ball to open 277 MLB contests.
Last year was the first season since 2009 in which Kennedy failed to make thirty starts. It also represented a confirmation of his struggles from the season prior. In total, over his past 273 2/3 innings, Kennedy has mustered only a 5.06 ERA with 7.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and 1.8 HR/9.
Kennedy’s still throwing as hard as before and appears to be getting similar movement on his pitches, but the league has clearly figured him out. His swinging-strike rate has dwindled down to 8.2% and opposing hitters have made hard contact on about four in ten balls in play over the past two seasons.
Frankly, these developments aren’t altogether surprising for a hurler who hit the 2015-16 market as a highly durable but rarely dominant middle/back-of-the-rotation arm. Kennedy was an accomplished hurler and drew mid-3 ERA equivalency grades from xFIP and SIERA in the two seasons before he reached free agency. Still, he had long battled home run problems that led to inconsistent results despite generally excellent K/BB numbers.
Even in that very different market setting — several other pitchers secured very large deals that winter with less-than-dominant track records — Kennedy’s five-year, $70MM contract was surprising. As former MLBTR scribe Charlie Wilmoth put it, “the financial outlay of the deal looks rather generous even before considering the opt-out.” Entering the offseason, we had predicted four years and $52MM.
The Kansas City organization knew the risks, but understandably wanted maximize its chances of winning another World Series after capturing a crown in a magical 2015 season. Kennedy did manage nearly two hundred innings of 3.68 ERA ball in the first year of his deal, but the peripherals told a different story.
Now, the Royals are paying what’s left of the tab for doubling down on a historic contention window. Kennedy accounts for two hefty line items: $16.5MM salaries in 2019 and 2020.
Looking at the present roster, bumping Kennedy will somewhat ironically open the door for Homer Bailey to join the starting staff. The oft-injured hurler is still due $23MM this year along with a $5MM buyout on what was once a 2020 option. Bailey was cut loose by the Dodgers entering the final year of the big extension that he signed with the Reds and which was shipped to Los Angeles this winter. The K.C. org will owe him only the MLB minimum.
Bailey will get a shot at redemption in Kansas City. Kennedy, meanwhile, will try to carve out a second act as a reliever while remaining available as a depth option should a rotation need arise.