This offseason's starting pitching market is one of the richest in recent years. Looking for an ace? There are several available. Solid mid-rotation starters? Yup, plenty of them. As one of many teams looking to improve their rotation this offseason, the Detroit Tigers are going to have plenty of options available to them. They're also going to face quite a bit of competition.
One free agent flying under the radar is Padres righthander Ian Kennedy. According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, Kennedy is among a group of starters the Tigers have indicated interest in, headed by lefthander Scott Kazmir. Kennedy struggled through a very ill-timed down season in 2015. He suffered a left hamstring injury that sent him to the disabled list in April, and struggled to find his form until June, finally hitting his groove during the summer months. Still, for the sixth consecutive year, Kennedy made at least 30 starts, and pitched very well from June through August. He may be a prime rebound candidate in 2016, and likely a reasonably priced one at that.
Who is he?
Kennedy was formerly the 26th ranked prospect in all baseball, pegged by the New York Yankees as the heir to Mike Mussina. Kennedy, a former USC standout, broke into the major leagues with the Yankees in 2007. In short stints over three years, he was unimpressive and oft injured. The Yankees decided to move him to the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2010 season in the deal that brought Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson to Detroit. While Kennedy did not live up to what Scherzer did in Detroit, he's forged a solid career as a dependable and durable starter in the intervening years.
Essentially, Kennedy is a fly ball pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters. Unfortunately, he has often given up way too many home runs. He features a low-90s fastball with well above average backspin. He complements the fastball with a cutter, and a good combination of curveball and changeup, both of which he's used more liberally the past two seasons.
Why should we care?
Unfortunately for Kennedy, his seesaw of good and bad seasons came down on the wrong side in his walk year. After 2014, Kennedy looked like a pretty consistent three-win pitcher who bounced back after a down year in 2013. His rough 2015 campaign couldn't have come at a worse time for him. Tigers general manager Al Avila has stated that his main goal this offseason is to acquire two quality starting pitchers. To accomplish this, the Tigers front office is absolutely going to have to hit on a low-priced starter, and Kennedy appears the perfect man for the job.
Over the past two seasons, Kennedy's strikeout rate has jumped from 20.5 percent to 24.4 percent, easily clearing the strikeout-per-inning mark. He's seen a slight uptick in his overall fastball velocity, but still sits around 91-92 miles per hour. His walk rate isn't all one could hope, but the core issue in Kennedy's career has been his fly ball tendencies and the damage done by the long ball.
In his defense, there are some extenuating factors at play. Pitching in Arizona may have hurt him in the home run department, for example. After a much better home run rate led to a nice 2014 season in San Diego, the Padres went and moved in the right field fences in 2015, and Kennedy's home run rate responded in horror. He was pounded for 31 home runs, many of which went to right field. Petco Park was 10th in home runs allowed among all MLB ballparks in 2015. A move to Comerica Park, which ranked 26th overall in home run rate, could give Kennedy the cushion he needs to take advantage of his fine strikeout abilities.
Another factor in Kennedy's rough go in 2015 was likely his April hamstring injury. As expected, Kennedy's peripherals suffered around the time of the injury and took over a month to return to normal. His command was awful, and he was victimized for 12 home runs in just 39 innings through May before righting the ship completely over the next three months.
Why should we stay away?
If there's one factor that is going to scare the Tigers away from Kennedy, it's his penchant for giving up too many home runs. How much of that the Tigers attribute to Kennedy's home ballparks and his early season injury in 2015 will probably form the lynchpin of their decision making in his case. Also at issue may be the Tigers' confidence in their ability to find a solid defender or platoon in left field to augment Anthony Gose and J.D. Martinez.
A possible source of improvement for Kennedy may simply lie in his fastball approach. Kennedy's low-90s fastball features a much higher spin rate than average. In 2015, he averaged 2361.0 rpm on his four-seamer, as compared to a league average rate of 2212.0 rpm. While he doesn't have the velocity of a Justin Verlander, Kennedy's high spin rate and fly ball tendencies could be turned to an advantage were he to follow the example of others who have managed to exploit the influx of good low-ball hitters into the league by pitching at the top of the zone more aggressively with their fastballs.
After the fiasco that was Anibal Sanchez's 2015 season, the Tigers have to be wary about locking in a guy who has consistently posted elevated home run rates in his career. Kennedy will likely get offers of four years or more, and while his durability should moderate the risks, committing long-term to a starter with that predilection for the long ball may be more than the Tigers are willing to stomach at this point.
Will he end up in Detroit?
There is a decent chance of the Tigers signing Kennedy. In many ways he's a lower risk candidate than some of the flashier names available. Six consecutive years of 30 starts or more is a lot of value, even if his effectiveness is a rather volatile commodity. As a lesser fly ball pitcher who may not attract the interest of teams like the Yankees or Red Sox, the market for Kennedy may not be hotly contested. He would again be pitching in a neutral home ballpark for home runs, and could perhaps be rejuvenated by pitching for contending team after years languishing amidst the flotsam of the NL West.
Kennedy could certainly wait out the more sought-after pitchers available this offseason and hope to squeeze a better deal out of a team left holding the empty bag. He might even be interested in a short deal to try to rebuild his brand and test the market again in a year or two. But those seem like risky strategies for him. As a 30-year-old starter coming off a rough year, Kennedy may value the security of a longer term deal over the best yearly salary. Then again, smart teams are likely to target Kennedy as a guy who woefully under-performed in 2015.