Royals starter Ian Kennedy held true to his word, declining to exercise a one-time opt-out in a five-year, $70 million contract signed before the 2016 season. He had little choice.
Kennedy, 32, could have opted out in the days after the World Series and returned to free agency. But in doing so, he would have turned down a guaranteed $49 million on the final three years of the deal. And in doing that, he would have returned to the open market after posting a 5-13 record and 5.38 ERA in 2017, the fifth worst ERA in baseball among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings.
In late August, Kennedy said it “would be pretty stupid” if he opted out of the deal. The statement was blunt by the standards of athletes. It was not inaccurate.
So now Kennedy is back for the final three years of his contract. And the Royals, barring a salary-dumping trade, must hope to receive value in what is, for the moment, still the second-largest contract in club history behind Alex Gordon’s four-year, $72 million deal signed in the same offseason. (That’s a subject for another day.)
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Kennedy’s salary will jump from $13.5 million in 2017 to $16 million next season. He will then make $16.5 million in both 2019 and 2020. He will turn 35 in the winter before the final year of the deal.
Can Kennedy perform well enough to justify those dollar numbers? It’s a difficult question for a couple reasons.
But let’s start here: In 2016, Kennedy posted a 3.68 ERA while striking out 184 in 195 2/3 innings across 33 starts. He was durable, as he tends to be. But he did give up a ton of homers (33), and he wasn’t particularly impressive, according to advanced metrics. Overall, though, his results were strong. Kennedy was worth four wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference’s version of WAR.
In 2017, of course, Kennedy regressed, putting up a 5.38 ERA while logging 154 innings and battling leg and shoulder issues. He gave up a ton of homers (34), and he was even less impressive, according to advanced metrics. According to bWAR, he was worth 0.5 wins above replacement.
The obvious answer, of course, would be that Kennedy needs to perform closer to his 2016 version to justify the guaranteed salary. That would give the Royals a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter to slot behind Danny Duffy. That would be useful.
But there are ways to look at value from a dollar perspective, and even some of the best methods we have offer varying perspectives. So let’s take a look.
FanGraphs converts a player’s WAR into monetary value, in an effort to determine how much it would cost to replace that WAR on the open market. It’s not perfect, and there are multiple places that do this, so the calculations include a bit of estimation. But in 2016 and 2017, one win was worth roughly $8 million on the open market.
So back to Kennedy. In 2016, he produced 4.0 bWAR, worth close to $32 million on the open market. Hey, that’s good. And it probably sounds like a lot. Nobody is going to pay Ian Kennedy that much for one season. But again, the number is simply a look at how much it might cost to replace that production on the open market.
But then, of course, there is 2017: Kennedy posted just 0.5 bWAR. That was worth just $4.0 million; Kennedy made $13.5 million.
At this point, we’ll add a layer of confusion. According to FanGraphs’ version of the WAR stat, Kennedy was worth just 1.6 fWAR in 2016. (The simple reason is that FanGraphs’ formula is based on stats that a pitcher most controls — like strikeouts, walks and homers — while attempting to reduce the effect of the defense playing behind him. So in that sense, Kennedy was worth just $12.9 million in 2016.)
But let’s try to simplify for a moment and base the conversation on what did actually transpire. So here’s the simple math: The cost of a win is going to rise over the next three seasons. But assuming it’s just over $8 million — or close to it — the Royals would need Kennedy to average just more than 2.0 bWAR across the next three seasons.
For comparison: Here are four starters who posted just more than 2.0 bWAR in 2017:
So here we are: This perhaps offers an illustration of what the Royals need from Kennedy across the next three seasons in order to make his contract palatable. It’s not a perfect illustration. These are just four pitchers who put up varying degrees of performance. In order to win, or even contend, the Royals would likely need even more. A salary of $16 million in Kansas City is different than $16 million in New York or Boston or Los Angeles.
But back to the initial question: Can they can find decent value in the $49 million that remains on Kennedy’s contract? This would be a start.