Royals make big bet that Kennedy can help Kansas City's rotation

Ian Kennedy has three 200-inning seasons on his resume and ranks 14th among MLB starters with 1,175 innings pitched since 2010. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The signing: The Kansas City Royals have reached an agreement on a five-year, $70 million contract with free-agent right-hander Ian Kennedy. The deal allows Kennedy to opt out after the second year, according to a source.

Based on the social media astonishment level and grudging praise for agent Scott Boras, this contract was one of the shocking overpays of the hot-stove season. Some observers thought Kennedy blundered when he spurned a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the San Diego Padres in December. In hindsight, he and Boras read the market more astutely than the skeptics did.

The familiarity level between Boras and Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore probably helped facilitate a deal. Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, reliever Luke Hochevar and DH Kendrys Morales are all Boras clients, and Moore was willing to take the plunge and bring Kennedy into the fold, even though the Royals will have to surrender the 24th overall pick in the June first-year player draft as compensation.

Kennedy joins David Price ($217 million), Zack Greinke ($206.5 million), Johnny Cueto ($130 million), Jordan Zimmermann ($110 million), Jeff Samardzija ($90 million), Mike Leake ($80 million) and Wei-Yin Chen ($80 million) on a list of pitchers who have hit the mother lode this winter. Throw Scott Kazmir's $48 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers into the equation, and that’s a total of $1 billion-plus invested in nine starters. For all the talk about a scarcity of hitting, MLB clubs have made their priorities clear this offseason.

The reason: The Royals fortified their bullpen with the addition of Joakim Soria in December and re-signed franchise mainstay Alex Gordon to a four-year, $72 million deal 10 days ago, but the world champions knew they had to do something to improve a starting rotation that ranked 24th in the majors with 912⅔ innings pitched and 22nd in starters' ERA at 4.34.

The Royals could have gone to spring training with a rotation of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen and Chris Young and been competitive. But Medlen has had two Tommy John surgeries, Duffy has yet to pitch 150 innings in a season and Young remained strong down the stretch and in the 2015 postseason because the Royals were able to carefully manage his workload. The addition of Kennedy also gives prospect Kyle Zimmer the luxury of more time to develop in the minors.

Kennedy’s prime responsibility will be to eat innings and serve as a middle-of-the-rotation workhorse in Kansas City. He has three 200-inning seasons on his résumé and ranks 14th among MLB starters with 1,175 innings pitched since 2010. But the Royals better hope 2015 was an aberration: Kennedy logged only 168⅓ innings in 30 starts and contributed 17 quality starts in 30 appearances.

The impact: Kennedy averaged a career-high 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014, and matched it last season. He has the ability to make hitters swing and miss. But when they make contact, the ball can go a long way. Kennedy allowed a whopping 31 home runs in his 168⅓ innings with the Padres last season.

Kennedy’s home-run-to-fly-ball ratio spiked from 7.8 percent in 2014 to 17.2 percent last year, so the Royals are hoping there was some bad luck in the equation. Young certainly thrived as a fly-ball pitcher in Kansas City, and Kennedy, who has similar tendencies, is set up for success, pitching in spacious Kauffman Stadium with a strong defensive outfield of Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson/Paulo Orlando behind him.

For sake of comparison, San Diego’s Petco Park was the 10th-friendliest home run park in the majors last season, while Kauffman Stadium ranked 25th.

Kennedy will be reunited in Kansas City with Dave Eiland, who was the pitching coach in New York when Kennedy was coming through the system as a former first-round draft pick of the Yankees. Eiland did a nice job getting the most out of Volquez last season. Now the Royals will find out if Eiland can maximize their $70 million investment in Kennedy.