As I have regularly mentioned on this blog, the start of this MLB season looks hazy at best. While there are some signs that baseball could return, it is unlikely that a.) we will have a full season and b.) that will baseball return to home stadiums anytime soon. If baseball does return, then it is highly possible that it could be done in isolation, whether that’s in Arizona, Florida, or just the empty stadium parks all together. It’s a sad reality to think about, but at the end of the day, it seems like sports fans in general would rather have “isolated” Major League Baseball rather than no MLB season at all.
If I had to guess, my most optimistic outlook for the start of the season would be in the beginning of July, with a 2-3 week isolated Spring Training happening in June, though I could not tell you whether that would be in Arizona or somewhere else. And with the season starting around that timespan, my guess is that MLB will try to schedule an 80 game season, with a postseason following. While I imagine some may clamor for a longer slate, especially if play resumes in Arizona (where weather won’t be an issue), I think baseball would benefit from a shorter season, especially in this time of crisis. The whole point of baseball in 2020 is not necessarily to have another season as usual, but rather to keep the nation interested, as well as keep players in somewhat playing shape so they don’t miss a whole season of play going into 2021.
So with a shortened 80-plus game slate a likely solution, the Royals could certainly get creative in order to be competitive during this shortened slate. After all, with less games, the Royals’ chances of competing go up, as they could ride a hot start or stretch of play to sneak into the postseason, easier to do with the season practically cut in half.
One method that could help them accomplish this goal would be to do something dramatic that I don’t think they would do, but would be worth exploring: moving Ian Kennedy back to the rotation.
For some Royals fans, that seems like sacrilege. After all, Kennedy is currently the Royals’ expected closer going into 2020, as he posted a 3.47 ERA and 30 saves in 63.1 innings in 2019, pretty solid numbers considering it was his first year in the role. Furthermore, his last season as a starter in 2018, he posted a 4.66 ERA and only 119.2 innings of work. While that isn’t bad, it’s not exactly promising, especially considering Kennedy struggle to stay health in the role in 2018.
However, I will give Royals fans four reasons why Kennedy should be moved to the rotation, and why this could help the Royals not just in the short term, but beyond 2020 as well.
The Royals do not have a 5th starter, and it is unlikely that any of the four phenoms will get called up
As of now, the first-through-fourth spots in the rotation seem set: Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Danny Duffy, and Mike Montgomery in any order. However, the fifth spot in the rotation seems shaky at best. Jorge Lopez and Glenn Sparkman both struggled in the role last season, and though both of them had decent Springs, the consensus among Royals fans is that it would be better for the Royals to have them in long relief rather than a starting role. Furthermore, with a shortened season, the Royals may wait a year before bringing up any of their four top pitching prospects (Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic), as they probably need more development, and the club could save on their service time anyways during a shortened and wonky year.
Unfortunately for the Royals, beyond that, there are not a lot of good options. Chance Adams has some prospect pedigree, but he didn’t really do great with the Yankees, and he may be a middle-innings reliever at best at the Major League level. Foster Griffin got lit up in Omaha last year and Spring Training, and he may only be a slightly better Eric Skoglund at the end of the day. Thus, the Royals are in a dilemma when it comes to filling in the fifth spot of the rotation…unless they go with Kennedy.
While Kennedy wasn’t great in 2018, he still posted a 1.1 WAR and 4.61 FIP over 22 starts and 112 innings of work. Comparatively speaking, Lopez posted a 5.66 FIP and -0.2 WAR in 123 innings of work, and Sparkman posted a 5.93 FIP and -0.5 WAR in 136 innings of work. Thus, even if Kennedy regresses to his 2018 numbers, he would still be an upgrade over either option and impact the Royals rotation more positively in the win column as well.
Kennedy wouldn’t have to pitch more innings, which could help his effectiveness
At 35-years-old, the thought was last year that a move to the closer’s role could extend Kennedy’s life as a pitcher at the Major League level, especially considering his injury issues and his lack effectiveness as a starter in 2017 and 2018. That being said, an 80-game slate would considerably lessen the load potentially if Kennedy moved back to the rotation. During an 80-game slate, all 5 starters would make around 16 starts (if the load was distributed evenly and with no injuries). If Kennedy averages five innings an appearance (which is a low, pessimistic estimate), that would be 80 innings total for the year. That would only be around 17 more innings than what he pitched in 2019.
Now of course, Kennedy would have to shift his approach from a closer’s mentality to a starting one, but Kennedy had been a starter his entire Major League career prior to 2019. I’m sure the first couple of starts may take some adjustment, but after that, it’s highly likely that the 35-year-old pitcher would get back into the groove as a Royals starter, especially at the end of the rotation where there is less pressure.
And for those who think that this would be difficult, it has happened a lot, as many have pointed out to me on Baseball’s Reddit. The most prime example is John Smoltz, who started out as an elite starter, missed time due to injury, came back a few seasons and excelled as a closer before returning to the rotation. While saying that Kennedy may be the next Smoltz is wishful thinking, it certainly is possible that Kennedy and the Royals could follow this blueprint and find some kind of success, especially since the workload wouldn’t increase that much in 2020.
Being a starter could increase Kennedy’s trade value
Kennedy is in the last year of his five-year contract with the Royals and it is unlikely that he will stay beyond 2020, even if he continues to have a lights-out season as Royals closer. He’ll be 36-years-old and the Royals are in rebuilding mode, which makes Kennedy a surplus that the organization doesn’t need. In fact, it seems like the Royals have been trying to trade Kennedy over the past year to a team that may need a one-year rental for a closer, similar to what the Royals did with Wade Davis in 2017. However, considering Kennedy is due to make $16.5 million in 2020, the Royals would have to eat a considerable chunk of that cash to make a trade happen, which Dayton Moore probably does not want to do.
However, while a team may not want to spend that kind of money on a “relief” rental, a starting pitcher rental on the other hand may be a different story. If Kennedy can have a good year in the rotation, he could be seen as an effective “swing” type for a contending club (meaning that he could fluctuate between relief and spot starting). This versatility may convince a club to not only acquire him for the remainder of the 2020 season, but also sign him to a modest 1-2 year extension, since he can eat innings in this “swing” role. Thus, while it’s unlikely that a trade would happen with Kennedy being used solely as a reliever in 2020, if Kennedy returns to the rotation again and succeeds as a starter, some options could open up for the Royals that may not cost them as much on their end when it comes to a Kennedy trade.
The Royals can start looking for their closer of the future sooner
Honestly, the bullpen is a lot further ahead and deeper than their starting rotation going into 2020. With the addition of Trevor Rosenthal to the 40-man roster, and the likely addition of Greg Holland, the Royals have some considerable depth and versatility in the pen that could help them in close games in the middle-to-late innings in 2020. That is a far cry from 2018 and the first half of 2019, when the Royals bullpen was one of the least dependable in baseball.
However, while Kennedy contributed to that bullpen last year, especially in the second half, the Royals have some “closer-in-waiting” options behind him. It probably could benefit the Royals to explore these options now, especially since they will be under longer team control than Kennedy, who’ll most likely be gone after 2020. The most logical replacement for Kennedy may be Scott Barlow, a fireball-throwing right-hander who was acquired by the Royals from the Dodgers in 2018. While Kennedy was sightly better than Barlow overall in 2019 (1.5 WAR to 1.1 WAR), Barlow was actually better in the second half than Kennedy (0.9 WAR to Kennedy’s 0.3 WAR), and was tied with Tim Hill as the Royals’ best reliever in the second half.
Thus, while Kennedy has the save numbers, he wouldn’t be missed much if he made the move to the rotation in 2020. Barlow was probably the more dependable option in the second half out of the pen, and that bodes well for Barlow in a possible transition to the closer’s role in 2020. And if Barlow doesn’t work, the Royals could also explore using Josh Staumont in the role, who has triple-digit stuff, and had a lot of success out of the pen this past Spring in Surprise.