Ian Kennedy cut his finger recently while washing dishes. As a result, Tyler Skaggs got the start in the early game of Monday’s Memorial Day twinbill against the Rangers, and he acquitted himself quite well. The start threw into sharp relief just how necessary Kennedy is to the Dbacks plans, both current and future. As we move further away from his breakout season, it is fair to wonder — is Kennedy about to be the odd man out in the Arizona rotation?
First, let’s take a look from a performance perspective. Pick your metric of choice, chances are Kennedy has been among the worst, or the worst, among Dbacks starting pitchers. The rotation has performed splendidly so far — its 90 FIP- ranks fifth in all of baseball, and second in the National League. But in the early going, Kennedy has not helped the cause all that much. He’s tied for the team lead in walk percentage with Trevor Cahill. He’s generating fewer ground balls than the rest of his teammates by a wide margin, which isn’t necessarily a big deal in a vacuum since the Dbacks sport a great outfield defense. However, the more fly balls one allows, the more likely one will be hit in the direction of Jason Kubel and his balky quad, and the ending to that story is probably not a happy one for Dbacks watchers. Of course, not all of the fly balls that he allows land in the field of play. Kennedy has also allowed homers at a rate higher than that of his fellow rotation mates, and is the only member of the rotation whose HR/FB is not better than average.
Kennedy hasn’t shown poorly just in relation to his teammates, but to himself as well. One of the big reasons for his breakout in 2011 was that he upped his strikeout rate just enough and lowered his walk rate just enough to have some pretty fantastic margins. His strikeout percentage was 24th that year among qualified pitchers, and his walk rate was 26th, but his K%-BB% clocked in at 19th-best. Still, the lack of domination with either rate meant that Kennedy’s margins were thin, and they remain that way today. As Kennedy’s K%-BB% has backslid — to 14.7% last year and 10.2% this year — so has his effectiveness. His 10.2% this year actually ranks ahead of Cahill and Wade Miley, but they have been better at keeping runs off the board than has Kennedy, likely thanks to their ability to generate ground balls more frequently.
When we’re looking at a team’s makeup, there are other factors at play as well, and payroll concerns are a big one. The Dbacks had no hesitation about trading for Cahill and his beefy contract, nor in signing McCarthy to a similar deal in free agency. But Kennedy, who is represented by the Boras Corporation, came up for arbitration last year, and he did not sign a long-term deal. He was open to one in March of 2012, so the team changed its mind, he changed his mind, or he was simply being polite. No matter the reasoning, he is progressing year to year, as many of Scott Boras’ clients are wont to do. And thanks to his large arbitration award the first time through, he stands to get a nice raise each time through, provided he stays healthy and in the rotation. A conservative estimate would put his salary for 2014 at $6 million, but there’s a good chance he does better than that.
A $6 million salary isn’t prohibitive of course, but for a team which is unlikely to raise the salary bar very much past where it already is, the team may need to re-evaluate how much they spend on their soft-tossing righty. Especially since Corbin, Miley, Skaggs, Daniel Hudson and Archie Bradley are all still in the “dirt cheap” bin. Hudson may become eligible for arbitration this winter, but thanks to his year spent on the disabled list, it’s unlikely that he’ll net a raise anywhere near what Kennedy received. It’d be one thing if Kennedy was still the dominating force in the Dbacks rotation, but that is no longer the case. Furthermore, it’s about more than the money. More and more, teams are trying to lock up players early. The fact that the Dbacks did not look to lock up Kennedy is as much a statement as locking him up would have been.
Now, admittedly, it’s still early. Kennedy could run off a three-four start streak and get back to where he should be, and Corbin probably isn’t as good as he has pitched thus far. Still, push is going to eventually come to shove in the Arizona rotation. Skaggs is going to be knocking on the door, and Hudson is also going to need a spot when he returns from injury. At the outset of the season, you would have pegged Corbin to lose his spot, but that’s not happening now. Cahill has his friendly long-term deal keeping him in the fold, and while McCarthy may be a trade candidate given the short commitment on the books to him, his injury and performance history taken in tandem make it unlikely that the team will get a good return on him.
There is only so long that the team will be able to keep Bradley and Skaggs on the farm, and that still hasn’t taken Hudson into account. Kennedy has started the last two opening days for Arizona, but there are about to be more starting pitchers than starting rotation slots, and if Kennedy keeps pitching this way he may find himself elsewhere.