When the Rockies signed Kyle Kendrick to a one-year $5.5 million contract in February, a debate ensued. "He can ingest innings and stave off calling up the young guys," some declared. "But he’s actually terrible so that won’t work," others countered. An under-discussed possibility was that Kendrick wouldn’t finish the year as a member of the Rockies at all. The low risk contract to which the Rockies signed him can make him attractive to a contending team desperate for competence at the back-end of the rotation.
Signing a starting pitcher to a cheap one-year deal with the intent on flipping him at the deadline is something the Cubs have done the past couple of years. Prior to the 2013 season, the Cubs signed Scott Feldman to a one-year $6 million contract. Upon the signing, Feldman had a 4.81 career ERA and a 94 ERA+ as a starter and reliever over eight seasons in Texas. In 91 innings with the Cubs, however, he turned in a 3.46 ERA and a 112 ERA+. The Cubs then traded Feldman and another player to the contending Orioles for Jake Arrieta, now an almost ace, and late inning reliever Pedro Strop. They did the same thing with Jason Hammel prior to 2014. He was the lesser part of the package that brought Addison Russell and Bill McKinney to the Cubs.
If Kendrick has done anything so far this season to confirm his tradeability, it’s that he’s shown that he’s mostly himself. He’ll have enough peaks to make his valleys sufferable, and in the end he'll occupy the space in between. After an excellent 2015 debut, Kendrick had an awful stretch of five games where he posted an 11.08 ERA. In his next five starts, however, he’s posted a respectable 4.36 ERA, which is much closer to his career average. He still has an ugly 6.55 ERA on the year, but it’s a good bet that it will go down. And in any case, we’re talking back-end help, not savior. The ideal landing spot for Kyle Kendrick is a team that is currently in contention and needs back-end rotation help.
Yes, intradivision trades are uncommon, but this is the type of trade where that barrier is irrelevant—over the past two seasons, the Rockies and Dodgers have exchanged pitchers Juan Nicosia and Aaron Harang. The Dodgers have no issues whatsoever atop their rotation, as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are two of the best pitchers in the National League. But the Dodgers lack rotation depth. Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy are both out for the season. And it would surprise nobody if the Dodgers’ third best starter, Brett Anderson, is shelved at some point due to injury. His 63 innings pitched so far are already more than he's pitched in any season since 2011. Behind Anderson, the Dodgers have given 18 starts to Mike Bolsinger, Carlos Frias, David Huff, Joe Wieland, Scott Baker, and Juan Nicasio.
The Dodgers are probably good enough to hold off the Giants and win the division without making additions. But if they decided to add Kendrick alongside another starting pitcher (and possibly calling up Julio Urias in September), they would be set up to compete with the Cardinals and the Nationals, the other two likely NL division winners, come September and October.
The Cardinals haven’t missed a beat since losing staff ace Adam Wainwright for the season. And, in fact, their starting pitching has been a strength. Their front four of John Lackey, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, and Carlos Martinez have combined for a 2.77 ERA and a 3.36 FIP. Those four have also struck out 21.4 percent of the batters they faced and walked just 7.7 percent. Jaime Garcia has slotted into the fifth spot, but like Brett Anderson, health is the exception to the rule of injury for Garcia.
The Cardinals could use Kendrick to serve as a fifth starter, whereas the Dodgers would probably slot him in as the fourth starter. Fifth starters aren’t necessary in the playoffs, but the Cardinals might need a competent fifth man because they are in the most competitive division in the National League, as they have to contend with the Pirates and the Cubs. For instance, FanGraphs gives the division leading Cardinals a 69.1 chance to win the NL Central—compare that to the respective 81 percent and 83.5 percent odds for the division leading Dodgers and Nationals.
In pursuit of a the Cardinals, the Pirates could use someone like Kendrick to shore up a solid top three, consisting of Gerrit Cole, AJ Burnett, and Francisco Liriano. Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, and Charlie Morton currently occupy the back-end of the Pirates rotation. Worley has a 3.64 ERA, but he’s walking a tightrope with a 4.0 percent home run to fly ball ratio. Morton has a 2.84 ERA in three starts, but he also has an extremely low 2.84 strikeout per nine that doesn't lend itself to sustained success. And Locke, who has started the most games out of the three, has a 5.34 ERA and a 4.20 FIP.
Kendrick’s experience might make him a very good fit in Pittsburgh, even though on the surface his numbers aren’t superior to some of the players he might displace. Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has worked wonders with veterans Burnett (who turned down more money from Philadelphia to return to Pittsburgh) and Liriano. I can see the Pirates taking a chance to Kendrick. Perhaps Searage can up Kendrick’s career low groundball rate in order to take advantage of the Pirates’ effective shifting, while simultaneously hoping that Kendrick’s 17.4 home run to fly ball ratio falls.
Like the Pirates, the Royals have contextual factors that might make Kendrick appealing. First, they play in a park unfriendly to home runs. According to ESPN's park factors, it’s the third most inhospitable to the dinger so far in 2015, behind only AT&T Park and Marlins Park. That will help Kendrick, as it will help any pitcher. Kaufmann Stadium does, however, have an expansive outfield. But that brings us to the second factor that might make Kansas City a good fit for Kendrick: the Royals outfield happens to be manned by a collection of extraordinary outfielders. Kendrick’s weaknesses can be hidden a bit as a member of the Royals.
Kendrick also seems like a good fit because the Royals rotation is already full of Kendrick-esque pitchers (Yordano Ventura and the currently injured Danny Duffy excepted). Edisonon Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas currently hold rotation slots. Guthrie, in particular, has been awful so far this season, as he’s posted a 6.17 ERA and a 5.95 FIP. Right now, it’s not clear that Kendrick would actually be an upgrade at any spot for the Royals—after all, his ERA and FIP are worse than Guthrie’s. But if an injury should befall any of their starters, if Volquez suffers from another bout of gopheritis, or if Guthrie is really and truly broken, I can see the Royals pursuing someone like Kendrick to provide competent innings while competing for a division crown.
The natural follow-up question to these possible trade partners for Kendrick is who the Rockies can get for him. My answer: I don’t know, because I don't feel like perusing through mid to low-level prospects of other organizations. In other words, the return won’t be exciting. But even if the Rockies can only get a lottery ticket for Kendrick, they should take it. If they do, it will illustrate that the signing had implications well beyond whether or not Kendrick could competently eat innings for a year.