Pitcher Ian Kennedy will embrace a “new part” of his career as the Royals will move the longtime starter into the bullpen for the 2019 season. After an injury-plagued 2018 season, the organization and Kennedy hope the move will make Kennedy an even more valuable weapon for their pitching staff.
Kennedy pitched a one-inning relief appearance on Sunday, which provided the final hurdle before Royals manager Ned Yost made the move official on Tuesday.
Kennedy’s last appearance out of the bullpen came as a New York Yankees pitcher in September 2009. It was one of two relief appearances in Kennedy’s major-league career. He has made 277 starts, 85 with the Royals, in the majors since that last relief outing.
“Doing something new, it’s exciting,” Kennedy said. “I told them that it took me a while to mentally grasp it. Then I told them as soon as they made the decision, I was ready for either or, start or relief.”
Last season, Kennedy went 3-9 with a 4.66 ERA in 22 starts. He also had a pair of disabled-list stints. He posted a 1.379 WHIP, and opposing hitters batted .265 against him.
Asked what was the hardest part of coming to grips with the move, Kennedy replied, “Knowing that I could still start.”
Kennedy pointed to his late-season outings last season, particularly going seven innings against Detroit, as examples that he’d learned to be more efficient. He added a cutter to his repertoire and pitched “even a little better” than before he’d went on the disabled list.
“So it was just taking to grips that I could still start, but just part of being a team player,” Kennedy said. “We’re all competitors. I know I could still do it, but I’m just trying to do what the team wants me to do and take it and run with it and have fun.”
Kennedy said he’s already received advice from pitching coach Cal Eldred, a former major-league pitcher who converted to a reliever toward the end of his career. Kennedy said he spoke with former Royals pitcher Greg Holland on Monday, and Kennedy considers Luke Hochevar a close friend.
Hochevar started almost exclusively in the majors from 2008-12. The former first-round draft pick switched to the bullpen in 2013, and his performance was critical during the 2015 World Series season. He made 49 appearances during the regular season, and pitched 10 2/3 scoreless innings with a 0.66 WHIP in the 2015 playoffs.
Kennedy expects to also speak with former Royal and current Colorado Rockies pitcher Wade Davis, who is scheduled to pitch against the Royals on Wednesday night.
Davis made the transition from starter to bullpen with the Royals and became a three-time All-Star reliever (twice with the Royals) and a postseason difference-maker. Davis dominated in the 2015 World Series season when he posted an 0.94 ERA and recorded 17 saves, a 0.787 WHIP and struck out 10.4 per nine innings.
Yost said it was too early to know what specific role Kennedy would fill out of the bullpen or in what situations he’d get called upon. Yost was impressed by the way Kennedy’s pitches played in a game situation when he pitched a one-inning relief stint on Sunday.
“I saw what I wanted to see,” Yost said. “I wanted to see a jump in velocity, you know, come out and let’s see what you got in a short burst. He looked great, fastball up to 95 and a really sharp breaking ball.”
The Royals always maintained that the possibility of Kennedy moving to the bullpen hinged on the overall starting pitching depth.
The Royals faced a numbers crunch with rotation spots and the possibility of losing players if they were not on the major-league roster.
While the Royals hadn’t made any declarations on rotation spots other than Brad Keller starting opening day, the Kennedy move appears to indicate the Royals have settled on Keller, Jakob Junis, Homer Bailey and Jorge Lopez in the rotation to start the season with Danny Duffy and Heath Fillmyer as candidates when they need a fifth starter.
With off days in the early-season schedule, the Royals shouldn’t need a fifth pitcher for the first few weeks of the season. Duffy is behind schedule because of shoulder soreness that caused the Royals to shut him down temporarily during camp. He’ll likely remain in Arizona and take part in extended spring training when the team breaks camp next week.
If Fillmyer were sent to the bullpen or the minors, Bailey and Lopez can take those final two rotation spots without the Royals potentially exposing any of their pitchers to be acquired by another team.
Lopez has pitched well this spring and he’s out of options. Bailey, who signed a minor-league deal in February, can opt out of his contract by Monday and potentially sign with another organization.
“Homer Bailey, I feel comfortable with where he’s at,” Yost said. “I feel comfortable where Lopez is at. I think I’m comfortable with where Duffy is at even though he’s going to be a little bit coming up behind it. I think that Ian hopefully will stay healthier over the long haul, not putting up so many innings but coming in short bursts and being an integral part of our pen, which I feel like he’s got a chance to be.”
Roster shaping up
The Royals on Tuesday optioned right-handed pitcher Glenn Sparkman and outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Brett Phillips to Triple-A Omaha. The demotions of Bonifacio and Phillips appear to pave the way for Brian Goodwin and Jorge Soler as the top options in right field and designated hitter, respectively.
The Royals also sent pitchers Richard Lovelady, Zach Lovvorn and Drew Storen, catcher Xavier Fernández, infielders Jecksson Flores and Nicky Lopez and outfielders Elier Hernandez and Bubba Starling to minor-league camp. The Royals now have 37 players in major-league camp.