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Thursday, May 13, 2010
What should the Phillies do with Kendrick?

By Bill Baer, Crashburn Alley

The Philadelphia Phillies' 2007 season was a year-long struggle. Adam Eaton, one of their big free agent signings during the offseason, pitched horribly with a 6.29 ERA in 30 starts. Jon Lieber hit the disabled list, as did Tom Gordon and Freddy Garcia. Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms did not provide any offense at third base.

Yet the Phillies reached the postseason for the first time since 1993. In the second half of the season, they played .593 baseball and turned up the heat with a four-game series sweep of the division-leading New York Mets at the end of August. The Phillies swept the Mets one more time in mid-September and won the National League East on the last day of the regular season, a great reward for six months of relentless battling.

Often overlooked in the Phillies' playoffs path was rookie Kyle Kendrick's performance. Called up in mid-June to take the injured Freddy Garcia's spot in the starting rotation, Kendrick pitched well in five of his first six starts. Overall, the Phillies won 13 of his 20 starts, including six of his final eight (in which he posted a 3.74 ERA in 46 innings). Without Kendrick, the Phillies simply wouldn't have broken their postseason dry spell.

Since then, Kyle has failed to live up to his initial success. He earned a spot in the rotation in 2008 but could only muster a 5.49 ERA in 30 starts. The big differences between the two seasons were his increased walk rate (1.9 per nine innings in '08, 3.3 in '09) and his fortune on balls put in play (.279 BABIP in '08, .316 in '09). In both seasons, he averaged fewer than four strikeouts per nine innings, meaning that he was very dependent on his defense to convert batted balls into outs. Despite the Phillies possessing baseball's best defense (according to UZR/150) in '08, they converted 3.5 percent fewer balls in play into outs from '07 to '08 while Kendrick toed the rubber.

Kendrick would spend most of 2009 in Triple-A Lehigh Valley before reclaiming a spot in the 2010 rotation following an injury to Joe Blanton. The young right-hander relied on a sinker and a change-up for most of his career. During spring training this year, after being Roy Halladay's shadow, he added a cutter to his repertoire. Unfortunately, he has not had the same control that helped his cause in '07 and he is still failing to miss hitters' bats with a sub-4.0 K/9 rate.

Since 1990, only 24 qualified pitchers have finished a season with a K/9 of 4.0 or lower and an ERA+ of 100 (league average) or higher. In this decade, the only pitchers to accomplish that feat are Kirk Reuter (2000, '02), Brian Anderson ('03), Carlos Silva ('04-05, '07), Chien-Ming Wang ('06), Aaron Cook ('06-07), and John Lannan ('09). An uninspiring bunch for sure and one that does not make you think of Bob Gibson.

So what should the Phillies do with Kendrick? There has been no evidence that he will ever miss bats at a passable rate and Major League hitters are getting more and more information with every start he makes. In February, when the Phillies were determining their No. 5 starter, I suggested that Kendrick should win the role over Jamie Moyer because, if he pitched well, the Phillies could capitalize on his value in a trade.

That ship has sailed. The value Kendrick now provides revolves solely around his salary. He is earning $480,000 this year and will enter his first year of arbitration after the season. Presumably, the Phillies could find a team that wants to cut salary -- perhaps the Baltimore Orioles with Kevin Millwood or the Cleveland Indians with Jake Westbrook -- and offer Kendrick and his low salary. The problem is that the Phillies would have to eat some salary and for a front office that capped the team payroll at $140 million going into the season, this may not be realistic.

For now, while J.A. Happ is on the mend and with no pitching help from their minor league system is on the horizon, the Phillies simply have to trot Kendrick out there every fifth day, cross their fingers, and hope he can reclaim the luck he found throughout the 2007 season.