With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at reliever Ian Kennedy.
One of the things that I find interesting about being a baseball fan is the evolution of players’ careers.
Not every player’s career, of course. But there are guys whose career arcs are kind of interesting to look back on, particularly when they are someone who was on your radar before they ever reached the majors.
Which brings us to Ian Kennedy. The New York Yankees’ first round pick in 2006, you may remember him as one of a trio of young, well regarded pitching prospects for the Yankees from the latter part of the Aughts*, along with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. They were supposed to be the heart of the Yankees’ rotation for years to come. That didn’t happen, of course, but two of the three have had good major league careers, and really, if you have three highly touted pitching prospects, two of them having solid major league careers and one flaming out is well within the meaty part of the realistic outcome curve.
* You may also recall that, when Mark Teixeira trade talks were going on, those three were considered off-limits, and the New York media and fans acted offended at the idea that the Rangers would even ask for one of those three pitchers. The Rangers should take Alan Horne and Andy Phillips for Teixeira, and should be grateful that the Yankees were being so generous with their largesse!
Kennedy never clicked with the Yankees, though. After making three starts in the majors in 2007, he broke camp in 2008 in the major league rotation and ended up getting sent down to AAA in May, ultimately putting up an 8.17 ERA in 39 innings over 9 starts and a relief appearance in the majors that year. Kennedy then missed most of 2009 due to an aneurysm in his arm, and ended up with more innings in the AFL that year (29.2) than in the majors and minors combined (23.2).
The Yankees needed a center fielder and were ready to move on from Kennedy after 2009, and thus, in December, 2009, he was involved in one of the more significant deals of that era: a three way deal between the Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers, that saw the Yankees send Kennedy to the D-Backs and Phil Coke and Austin Jackson to the Tigers, the Tigers send Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson to the D-Backs, and the D-Backs send Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers.
So...yeah. The D-Backs gave up up a future Hall of Famer to get Kennedy and Jackson. That is a deal that I’m sure Arizona would like to have back.
The interesting thing, though, is that it looked pretty good for Arizona the first couple of years after the deal. Kennedy outpitched Scherzer the first two years post-trade, putting up a 3.0 bWAR in 2010, then following it up with a 4.8 bWAR in 222 innings in a 2011 season where he finished 4th in the Cy Young voting and 14th in the MVP voting while fronting the rotation for a 94 win N.L. champion D-Backs club.*
* The other three pitchers who were regular members of that rotation were Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter, all of whom posted an ERA+ of at least 107. J.J. Putz was the closer. Miguel Montero was one of their best hitters. It was a weird team.
Things went south for Kennedy after that, however. He put up a league average ERA in 208 innings over 33 starts in 2012. He then put up a 4.91 ERA (76 ERA+) in 31 starts over 181 innings in 2013 — lots of innings and a really bad performance resulted in a -1.4 bWAR on the year. And he finished the season with the San Diego Padres, having been dealt to San Diego at the deadline 2013 for Matt Stites and Joe Thatcher, the D-Backs being ready to just move on from Kennedy.
Kennedy improved in 2014, putting up a 1.5 bWAR in 201 innings, then dropped back below replacement level over 30 starts in 2015. He hit the free agent market that offseason as a guy who would eat innings, but wasn’t good. It seemed like he would end up with an underwhelming deal.
But Kennedy and his agent, Scott Boras, did not accept an underwhelming deal. Instead, in January, 2016, they ended up landing a 5 year, $70 million deal from the Kansas City Royals.
Everyone gaped. They were befuddled. It made no sense. Yes, the Royals were coming off a title, they’d seemingly defied the experts who said they didn’t know what they were doing, they presumably had some money to spend...
But it was a deal that seemed way out of whack.
Kennedy gave the Royals a very good 2016 season in the rotation, putting up a 4.3 bWAR in 195 innings. After two pretty mediocre years, he moved to the bullpen, where he was solid in 2019 as the Royals’ closer. He finished out his contract with the Royals with 14 innings and a 9 ERA in 2020 and an i.l. stint in the COVID year.
When the Rangers signed Kennedy to a minor league deal for 2021, I wasn’t expecting anything from it. He wasn’t signed until late February. He was coming off a bad year. He was 36. It seemed like someone they were taking a look at, but who wasn’t going to stick around.
But the reviews that spring for Kennedy were good, and by late in camp, you were hearing that Kennedy was going to be the team’s closer. He was added to the Opening Day roster, closed games on those rare occasions when the Rangers had a game to save, and was praised for his leadership on a young pitching staff.
When July rolled around, it seemed to be a given that Kennedy would get moved, given how awful the team was and how well Kennedy had pitched. Sure enough, he was packaged with Kyle Gibson and Hans Crouse in the deal that brought Spencer Howard, Kevin Gowdy and Josh Gessner to Texas.
As it turned out, it was a really good signing by the Rangers.
Kennedy will spend the 2022 season with the D-Backs, the club that traded a future Hall of Famer for him all those years ago. He got a one year, $4.75 million deal with a club option for 2023.
Ian Kennedy has had an interesting career, one that isn’t quite over yet. Its one of the things that makes baseball interesting.