Kyle Kendrick‘s 2013 season has been fairly polar. Through the first three months of the season, Kendrick made 17 starts, completed 112 and 2/3 innings pitched, posted a 3.59 earned run average, opposing OPS of .678, and a 7.06 RE24. It’s one of the best stretches of his career, but as so often happens to average players, as they continue playing, their stats even out some. Over the next two months, Kendrick started 11 games, completed 59.0 innings, posted an earned run average of 6.25, an opponents OPS of .864, and an RE24 of -25.55.
Those numbers show two different pitchers. One, a ground ball inducing sinker ball pitcher that has value every 5th day. The other, a righty with a mix of bad luck, little confidence, and one in who fans and coaches alike have little confidence. Kyle Kendrick will never become a top of even consistently middle of the rotation starter, he just isn’t that type of pitcher. I won’t deny that Kendrick has steadily improved as a pitcher since breaking onto the Phillies scene in 2007, but unlike most pitchers who go through the a large majority of baseball maturity in the minor leagues, Kendrick did much of his growing at the major league level.
Kendrick performs best when he induces the most number of ground balls, using his sinker to his advantage. The issue with sinker ball pitchers is that if a sinker perhaps doesn’t sink, it becomes a low 90′s fastball that either breaks right in the middle of the plate or remains straight and true, also most likely in the middle of the strike zone. Kendrick has suffered due to the fickleness of the sinker, but more recently he has benefited from it. According to ZIPS projection system, Kendrick should end the 2013 season valued at just over 2 wins above replacement (fWAR). This would constitute the highest fWAR Kendrick has posted in any one season of his career.
Kendrick seems like a pitcher still learning his craft, but he also happens to be in his prime as a player, and thus he should continue to put up numbers similar to 2012 (1.2 fWAR) and 2013. The Phillies like Kendrick, and have always believed he could provide solid production at the MLB level, otherwise the organization would never have kept the righty in the big leagues, or put so much time and effort into shaping him as a pitcher. So, the Phillies like him, and Kendrick has shown improvement, enough to justify a roster spot on the 25-man roster of most MLB teams, the Phillies included. Why then, should the Phillies let him become a free agent instead of signing him to a new contract?
First, let me explain that Kendrick doesn’t actually become a free agent until 2015. The title of this piece is “Kyle Kendrick in 2014″ and I intend to discuss that, but his impending free agency in 2015 matter greatly in the discussion of next season. When Kyle first entered his arbitration years in 2011, the Phillies had yet to show the confidence in him that would invoke the offer of a contract to cover some or all of his arbitration years. Teams, more and more commonly, will offer a player who they believe to be good enough, contracts that will cover the years during which a player would usually enter into arbitration to determine the next year’s salary. Arbitration involves a hearing, something neither the player nor the team likes to go through, after which a panel of arbitrators make a decision, siding with either the figure proposed by the team, or the one proposed by the player. This process involves a number of arbitrary measurements of a player’s value including all-star appearances, win-loss records, etc…
After the 2011 season, the Phillies decided to buy out the next two years of Kendrick’s arbitration in order to forgo the arbitration process, a move that might very well save them money, time, and effort. The two sides agreed to a 2-year contract worth $7.5 million, and that contract runs out at the end of this season. Unless the two sides agree to a new deal, Kendrick will move to arbitration to determine his 2014 salary, and the after next season will go into the free agency abyss. Since Kendrick has steadily improved over the last few seasons, but hasn’t become anything special enough to write home about, it would behoove the Phillies not to invest more money and years in Kendrick past the 2014 season.
Pitchers with similar value and productivity to Kendrick are not ubiquitous throughout Major League Baseball, but they are common. Every team has a #4 and #5 starter as well as a few triple-A pitchers good enough to make at least a few starts at the MLB level every season. Kendrick falls into that category, even if he places more towards the upper end of that scale. He isn’t a high demand commodity, but his pitching profile does provide some safety and reliability, so even if the Phillies decide not to resign him after 2014, some team will.
Using Kendrick’s 2012 and projected end of the season numbers for 2013, we can extrapolate that he was worth about $6 million in 2012 and will be worth around $10 million at the end of 2013. The Phillies spent $7.5 million on him for those two seasons and his productivity valued him at about $16 million, a solid investment from the Phillies side. For 2014, Kendrick will be looking for a raise, especially if he goes to arbitration, where the arbitrators almost always increase the money given to the player as their service time increases. He could reasonably be looking at a 1-year deal anywhere between six and seven million dollars in arbitration, and if he has a season anything like 2013 or even one a bit worse, he would provide enough value to justify a contract of that size (fWAR between 1.3-1.4).
If the Phillies sign him to say a two or three year contract now, that would keep him in the rotation for the duration of that contract unless traded or injured. Kendrick might prove to be worth a deal in the range of say 3-years and $20 million, which is $5 million fewer than the Royals gave Jeremy Guthrie last offseason, but the Phillies would do themselves more benefit as an organization to sign Kendrick to a 1-year deal this offseason or go to arbitration instead of signing him long term. After 2014 Kendrick becomes a space filler. Pending an unforeseen trade, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee will both be playing for the Phillies in 2015 and possibly 2016. Recently signed Cuban righty Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez projects as a probably starter, and with his shiny new revised 3-year $12 million contract, there’s a decent chance he will be part of the rotation come 2015.
After Lee, Hamels, and Gonzalez, the Phillies have some options, Kendrick included. Still, the options other than Kendrick have more potential. Top pitching prospect Jessie Biddle could be very much in line for a mid-season promotion in 2015. Biddle will most likely spend time in both double-A and triple-A next season, after which he will probably end up beginning the 2015 season in Lehigh Valley before the Phillies will call him up, once the the super two deadline has passed. Biddle doesn’t project as a top of the line starter, but he seems like a solid #4 starter in the making with a ceiling that goes higher than that.
The other pitcher to consider is Jonathan Pettibone. Pettibone defines the #5/#4 starter, a description we already gave to Kyle Kendrick. In 100 innings pitched this season, Pettibone was worth 0.7 fWAR, which if prorated to Kendrick’s innings numbers would put Pettibone close if not equal to Kendrick. Pettibone is under team control for longer, and thus will prove cheaper over the next few seasons. After Pettibone, pitchers like Ethan Martin enter the picture. Martin has the stuff to be better than Pettibone, Kendrick, and even Biddle, but he hasn’t harnessed it yet, and until he does, he remains a #5/AAAA starting pitcher. The final option is free agency. The Phillies could, and if Ruben Amaro remains the GM, most likely will, look into and pursue free agent pitchers.
Usually a writer discussing a pitcher in Kyle Kendrick’s position would advocate signing him to a shortish team friendly contract that covers the remaining productive years of his career (most likely the next 3-4 seasons). This could be the answer here, but given the Phillies lack of high level pitching talent in the minor leagues, the organization’s solid depth of replacement level starters, and Kendrick’s proximity to free agency, the best move at this point would be to let Kendrick leave after 2014. The Phillies should sign the righty to a one-year deal this offseason, say to a 1-year $6 million deal, and then let him go.