You could say the market has agreed upon a price for mid-level innings-eaters around 30 years of age. The Kansas City Royals reportedly agreed on Saturday morning to sign right-handed starter Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal worth $70 million.
It’s a big contract, a surprising contract, but one that falls right in line with similar deals inked by Mike Leake (5/80), Wei-Yin Chen (5/80) and Jeff Samardzija (5/90). Looking back at our crowdsourced contract estimates, it’s clear that nobody expected this class of durable, mid-rotation starters to get paid the way they did:
It’s not the biggest “overpay,” relative to the what the crowd expected, but it’s close. Samardzija, Leake, Chen, and now Kennedy all received an extra year or two, and an extra few million dollars per year more than the crowd expected, adding up to each starter receiving between $20 and $30 million more than what folks thought.
But Kennedy’s contract leads the way, in terms of surprise. Thought was, Kennedy would get something like three years and $36 million. He got an extra two years, opposed to the extra one that the rest of the group received, and a larger AAV. When the crowdsourcing took place, an extra question was included, asking the crowd whether it thought Kennedy would accept the qualifying offer, a one-year deal worth just over $15 million. Nearly 40% of the crowd expected Kennedy to take the qualifying offer, more than double the number of people who thought Leake or Chen might accept. If Kennedy rejected the qualifying offer, there was fear among many that no team would be willing to concede a draft pick to sign Kennedy, even at the terms of 3/36.
Reason being, Kennedy simply hasn’t been as good as his peers. Last season, he allowed the highest OPS among any qualified starter, and whether you go back more years, or look toward the future, it’s tough to find any way to include Kennedy in the same class as Samardzija, Leake or Chen:
Last year, Kennedy was a replacement-level pitcher. In 2013, Kennedy was a replacement-level pitcher. He should be expected to do better than that, but odds are that Kennedy’s true-talent level lies a bit above a +1 WAR starter, with the most optimistic of projections putting him around +2 WAR, in the present. The contract runs for five years. Even if you start with Steamer’s more optimistic 2.2 WAR projections, it’s hard to justify, in a vacuum, Kennedy being worth $70 million:
|2016||31||2.2||$8.0 M||$17.6 M|
|2017||32||1.7||$8.4 M||$14.3 M|
|2018||33||1.2||$8.8 M||$10.6 M|
|2019||34||0.7||$9.3 M||$6.5 M|
|2020||35||0.2||$9.7 M||$1.9 M|
The estimate comes in $20 million shy of the actual contract, and that’s not including the loss of a late first-round draft pick, likely valued somewhere around $10 million, and the fact that there’s an opt-out for Kennedy after two years, which shifts the needle even more towards Kennedy’s side. If he’s good, he’s gone after two years, and if he’s bad, the Royals are saddled with his salary for the duration.
Of course, moves are to be evaluated in context, and each team’s situation is unique, as well as each player’s situation. There’s more to every deal than the dollars and years.
For instance, maybe the Royals just aren’t too concerned about the loss of the 24th overall pick in the draft? The window of contention might not be open for too much longer with this roster. Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Edinson Volquez and more will all be free agents by 2018, the same year in which Kennedy’s opt-out resides, and so perhaps they just care more about maximizing their chances of winning again during that two-year window, rather than maybe winning down the road. It’s a reasonable thought to have, and you’ve got to applaud the World Series champs, a team that’s always been ran on the tightest of budgets under owner David Glass, for opening up the pocketbook in an effort to continue Going For It. Kansas City’s Opening Day payroll is going to be something like $130 million dollars, up $20 million from last year and up $100 million from five years ago.
At the same time, if Kennedy is bad, as he’s been in two of the most recent three seasons, then Kansas City might have a replacement-level albatross on their hands in the very near future, and it’s the kind of move that might keep the Royals from retaining one of their star players in a couple years, when the franchise isn’t coming off the high of a World Series victory and swimming in extra postseason revenue.
The Royals needed a pitcher. They needed a pitcher who was likely to give them plenty of innings. Banking on the health of Kris Medlen, Danny Duffy and, to an extent, Yordano Ventura, is a frightening proposition, and the Royals wanted to mix in some certainty. In terms of innings, Kennedy will give them that certainty, but at one point due the value of a pitcher’s ceiling, and his floor, outweigh his durability?
Kennedy has thrown plenty of innings lately, but most of them haven’t been good innings. The big problem, for Kennedy, has been the fly balls. He doesn’t induce any grounders, and way too many of the flies have been leaving the park. True, Kaufman Stadium has a massive outfield that suppresses homers, and true, Kansas City has an incredible outfield defense that turns would-be fly ball hits into outs. But Kennedy recently pitched his home games in PETCO Park, a stadium just as pitcher-friendly as Kaufman, against teams that batted with a pitcher in their lineup, and even the greatest outfield defense in the world can’t turn fly balls that land halfway up the bleachers into outs.
Jeff recenty ran through all the pros and cons of Kennedy as a pitcher, and while it’s hard to be overly pessimistic, it’s equally difficult to come away feeling encouraged, and that was before we knew the terms of the deal. On the surface, it seems like an overpay. Kennedy isn’t Samardzija, or Leake, or Chen, and yet he gone Samardzija/Leake/Chen money. But the Royals needed a pitcher, and Kennedy’s a pitcher, and the Royals are better today than they were yesterday. Is the rotation good enough to contend again? Only time will tell, and maybe Dave Eiland can work his magic again, reuniting with Kennedy from their days with the Yankees. It sure looks like an overpay, but maybe that isn’t the point. We always want to see teams boost up their payroll after a World Series run, and the Royals have done just that. They’ve got another two years until things could get ugly again, and doing everything they can to keep this run going. It’s hard not to like the decision to commit to that, and to spend some money. It’s just a little harder to like where the money went.
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