The KC Royals believed they were getting a reliable starting pitcher when they signed a 10-year veteran in January 2016. The starter enjoyed little KC success before becoming a reliever in 2019. How will he fare in 2020?
While the KC Royals spent the 2015 regular season dominating the American League Central before winning the AL Pennant and then the World Series, Ian Kennedy struggled to a 9-15 record with the San Diego Padres, next-to-last place finishers in the NL West. It would be the last of Kennedy’s three Padres’ seasons; once a winner of 21 games for Arizona, Kennedy moved from the Diamondbacks to the Padres in a last-minute 2013 trade deadline deal, then went 26-30 to fall short of San Diego’s greater expectations.
The 21 games Kennedy won for the 2011 NL West champion D-Backs marked his career high (he only lost 4) and the 2.88 ERA he posted that season remains his best; without that season, though, Kennedy would own a pedestrian 56-64 career record.
But the Royals found something in Kennedy that caused them to offer him $70 million to pitch for them for five years. It was an unusual move by the usually tight Royals and Kennedy, never before a maker of such money, signed up in late January 2016. The deal was too good to pass up, with payouts of $7.5 million and $13.5 million in the first two years and a player opt-out worth $6 million after the second, followed by salaries of $16 million for ’18 and $16.5 million for ’19 and ’20.
Kennedy stepped into the KC rotation from the start and went 11-11 with a 3.68 ERA in the club’s letdown 2016 season, then went 5-13 in ’17. He had two choices at that point–take the $6 million opt-out and test free agency fresh from a season in which he lost more than twice as many games as he won, or stick with the Royals and collect the $49 million remaining on his contract.
Likely realizing he wouldn’t command anything close to that $49 million as a free agent, Kennedy wisely elected to stay. Things didn’t get any better, though, as he went 3-9 with a 4.66 ERA in 2018. The Royals were looking for a durable starter when they found Kennedy; they got durability from his 85 2017-19 starts, but little to show for it.
The club moved Kennedy to the bullpen in 2019 and discovered that whatever they saw in him as a $70 million starter must have been concealing his potential as a reliever. Although he’d made only five relief appearances before the season, he pitched out of the pen exclusively, became the Royals’ closer and saved 30 games. Pitching fewer innings clearly suited him–he posted the best strikeout rate of his career (10.4 SO9) and his best walk rate (2.4 BB9) since 2012. But will Kennedy’s new-found success continue?
2020 Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs projections. These two baseball sources’ projections for Kennedy are similar in most respects but differ remarkably in another. Baseball-Reference predicts Kennedy will pitch 78 innings and go 3-5 with a 4.62 ERA, with a 3.2 BB9 and 8.7 SO9; FanGraphs projects 63.1 innings pitched, a 3-3 record with 4.34 ERA, and walk and strikeout rates of 2.71 and 9.22. FanGraphs projects 31 saves, an unsurprising number considering his 30 last season, but Baseball-Reference predicts only 10 saves, a stunning two-thirds drop.
How will Kennedy actually perform? For Kennedy in 2019, improved performance was the effect, moving to the bullpen the cause. May and August aside (ERAs of 8.10 and 5.00), Kennedy pitched well throughout 2019. The velocities of his four-seamer and cutter, Kennedy’s two primary pitches, actually increased and he used the already effective cutter more than in the past. Although he pitched more often, throwing fewer innings and pitches seemed to matter.
Because Kennedy was so consistent during the season, little, if anything, suggests that 2019 will be an outlier for him. Baseball-Reference’s saves projection notwithstanding and assuming he continues to stay healthy, Kennedy, now accustomed to the closer role, should surpass his success of last season…the only question is whether he’ll do that with the KC Royals.
The club signed two former All-Star closers to minor league deals over the winter and invited both to Spring Training. Trevor Rosenthal had his best years in St. Louis for new Royals’ manager Mike Matheny and Greg Holland, the unforgettable former KC closer, returns to challenge for a spot in the pen. Whether either can recapture their former glory remains to be seen; it’s more likely that Kennedy will survive any challenges to his status as the closer.
More importantly, however, is that this will be the final season of Kennedy’s contract; he’s due $16.5 million, a sum so hefty that teams in early season need of a reliever will likely look elsewhere for a solution. But if 2020 is as good for him as 2019 was, Kennedy should spark some July trade deadline interest–by then, the Royals will have paid about half of that $16.5 million, making a deal more palatable. Because Kennedy is 35, however, a significant return of prospects isn’t likely. So, another good season for Kennedy may be one spent entirely with the KC Royals.
Ian Kennedy earned his money in 2019 and, as long as the KC Royals continue to use him as a reliever, he should have another good season in 2020.