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The Colorado Rockies must figure out if Ian Kennedy is worth giving up a draft pick

There are a few traits that make Ian Kennedy an attractive target for the Colorado Rockies this winter, but this whole draft pick thing...

Would the Rockies give up a draft pick for Ian Kennedy?
Would the Rockies give up a draft pick for Ian Kennedy?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Colorado Rockies made their first significant roster moves of the offseason on Friday afternoon when they designated four players—including three pitchers—for assignment, and placed four minor league prospects on their 40-man roster in advance of Major League Baseball's Rule 5 Draft.

As it stands now, those moves don't impact the Rockies' search for starting pitching (obviously John Axford, Rex Brothers, and Tommy Kahnle weren't going to be starting games for the club). But in an esoteric way, the moves signify the "real" start of the Rockies' offseason, so it's the perfect time to continue our series of free agent profiles.

Today's pitcher, Ian Kennedy, is in many ways a solid fit for the Rockies, though there are a few things (homer issues, being tied to a qualifying offer) that would give Colorado pause on pursuing the veteran right-hander. Let's make the case for (and against) Kennedy as a potential free agent target this winter:

Scouting Ian Kennedy

The 30-year-old right-hander from the University of Southern California (who was also a high school teammate of old friend Ian Stewart), Kennedy is very experienced in the National League West. Of 1,234.2 innings pitched in his big league career, Kennedy has thrown all but 59 for an NL West franchise:

NYY ('07 - '09) 14-12 59.2 63 43 40 37 43 6 1-4 6.03 4.99 75 1.676 9.5 0.9 5.6 6.5 1.16
ARI ('10 - '13) 119-119 748.1 693 340 318 228 661 91 48-34 3.82 3.96 106 1.231 8.3 1.1 2.7 7.9 2.90
SD ('13 - '15) 73-73 426.2 407 209 188 147 436 56 26-30 3.97 3.91 88 1.298 8.6 1.2 3.1 9.2 2.97
Career Totals 206-204 1234.2 1163 592 546 412 1140 153 75-68 3.98 3.99 97 1.276 8.5 1.1 3.0 8.3 2.77

Kennedy got a little homer-happy with the Padres in 2015 (he allowed 31 in 168 innings pitched, or 1.7 per nine innings). But aside from that aberration, he's been solid on not getting hit too hard, throwing consistent strikes, and limiting home runs at a rate more expected of a good, mid-rotation veteran.

Perhaps most attractive about Kennedy, at least from a statistical standpoint, is his familiarity with the National League West. He started 192 games combined between his time with the Padres and Diamondbacks, 86 of which have been against NL West opponents.

Here's how Kennedy has done against the NL West in his career:

Arizona 5-5 27.1 41 18 18 12 25 2 2-2 5.93 1.939 8.2 2.08
Colorado 22-22 133.2 118 60 45 39 138 15 6-7 3.03 1.175 9.3 3.54
Los Angeles 20-20 121.0 117 62 58 37 101 15 5-9 4.31 1.273 7.5 2.73
San Diego 13-13 82.2 67 28 28 20 96 8 7-2 3.05 1.052 10.5 4.80
San Francisco 26-26 166.2 142 60 53 53 142 11 11-6 2.86 1.170 7.7 2.68
Totals 86-86 531.1 485 228 202 161 502 51 31-26 3.42 1.216 8.5 3.13

There's a lot to like, of course, but it's not just against the NL West where Kennedy succeeds; specifically, he does well at Coors Field! (What an idea!) The proof:

at Coors Field 10-10 62.2 53 28 22 21 54 7 2-4 3.16 1.181 7.8 2.57

Those are pretty attractive numbers for a mile above sea level...

Again, Kennedy saw a rash of home runs in 2015, but the last two seasons also earned him a pretty significant spike in strikeouts. In 2014 and 2015 combined, Kennedy struck out 381 hitters in 369.1 innings (9.3 per nine innings), which was more than a strikeout per inning higher than his career average to that point.

There are a few aspects of pitch selection that are playing a role in Kennedy's significant and sudden increase in strikeouts:

  • First, he's throwing harder on average than he ever has in his career. Having never broken 90 mph with his average fastball before 2014, Kennedy saw a big jump the last two seasons in San Diego; he averaged 91.8 mph (2014) and 91.3 mph (2015) over his starts there.
  • Second, he picked up what FanGraphs considers a knuckle-curve. For the first time in his career, he started using the pitch—and he wasn't shy about using it a lot in 2014, throwing it 13.5% of the time. Then, this past summer, he dialed it up 15.0% of the time.
  • As an exchange, he's completely scrapped the overhand curveball from his repertoire and cut way down on his two-seam fastball in favor of the harder four-seam offering that, clearly, is missing more bats.
  • On the other hand, he's certainly not a ground ball pitcher, having tossed just a 38.7% GB rate in 2015, and a 40.7% rate for his career. While he may now possess harder pitchers with more bite, the hitters who do put the ball in play are still putting it in the air at a significant rate, which is a dangerous trait for Coors Field.

The case for the Rockies to pursue Ian Kennedy

Kennedy's case is similar to that of Mike Leake—if you missed it, read here to catch up—in that the righty is a successful veteran arm who belongs as an anchor in the middle of a rotation. Kennedy won't be cheap (more on some significant contract concerns below), but he's reliable and dependable, and he does something that ought to be attractive to the Rockies' front office: he misses bats.

With youngsters like Jon Gray and Eddie Butler breaking into the big league level, the Rockies seem to be intent on developing and attracting power pitchers to Coors Field (with varying levels of success), rather than their old, tired theories about ground ball pitchers who don't miss bats that rarely have seemed to work out. While Kennedy doesn't have a power fastball, he misses bats like a power pitcher and has a hard slider and knuckle curve (especially relative to his average fastball).

His career success in the NL West, against the Rockies individually, and even more specifically at Coors Field should attract the Rox, too. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, have 'em join your team, right?

The case against the Rockies going after Ian Kennedy

There are statistical reasons Kennedy may not fit in Denver, and his significant upswing in home runs last summer (especially in pitcher-friendly San Diego) should give the Rockies' pause, even if it was a one-off in an otherwise solid career. But the biggest case against him comes contractually, rather than on the field; earlier this week, Kennedy declined a qualifying offer from the Padres to remain an unrestricted free agent.

The rules around qualifying offers are significant: if a player declines his team's qualifying offer (what Michael Cuddyer did last year with the Rockies), any team that signs the player thereafter loses their top draft pick the next summer (as long as it isn't a top-ten protected pick). Since the Rockies' pick will be top-ten protected, they would lose their second best draft pick in 2016, likely somewhere in the mid-30s between the first and second rounds.

While that's quite a difference from the top pick, a player taken in the draft's top 40 is no slouch, either; this past summer, the Rockies chose high school right-handed pitcher Mike Nikorak in the same supplemental slot that they would lose if they sign Kennedy (or any player tied to a qualifying offer).

The case against Kennedy, then, is a case against spending money to try and win too soon. If the front office believes they are more likely to win later (and longer) with a mix of prospects and draft picks, spending lots of money on Kennedy (or Leake) is a costly risk that won't pay off for several years, anyways. Kennedy would likely get a multi-year deal in Denver, and even if he were hear for the Rockies' next contention window in 2017 or 2018, the loss of a draft pick may be too much of a risk for Colorado to pull the trigger.

Ian Kennedy's fit with the Rockies

Regardless of what you or I may think about risk, Jeff Bridich is on the record leaving his options open to sign a pitcher attached to a qualifying offer. While giving up a good draft pick for a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher may be too steep a price to pay (not to mention the actual contract value), Bridich may look at it the other way—or, hell, he's running interference on his own ideas in his quotes to the media, and keeping the actual plan close to the vest.

Kennedy will command north of $10 million a year in salary wherever he goes this winter, though at least he will be cheaper than Mike Leake and Wei-Yin Chen. The question for the Rockies, then, is whether they value a mid-rotation arm who pitches well at Coors Field and in the NL West more than they want a draft pick that may not pay dividends for several years, if at all.