Would Ian Kennedy Be Better Off With Another Organization?

February 5, 2009

Ian Kennedy was the Yankees first pick in the 2006 draft and was highly recommended to draft guru Damon Oppenheimer by Kennedy’s college coach at University of Southern California, Oppenheimer’s alma mater. That coach was Mike Gillespie, who eventually managed the Yankees short-season squad in Staten Island for a season. Kennedy rose quickly through the minor leagues, getting his first taste of the big leagues in 2007.

Coming out of spring training last season, Kennedy was given the No. 5 starter job in the Yankee rotation. That decision proved dreadful as Kennedy limped out of the Bronx with an 0-4 record and 8.17 ERA in 9 starts.

Meanwhile, entering that same 2008 season, Andy Sonnanstine was in the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation. He was a Rays 13th round pick in 2004 and, like Kennedy, dominated the minor leagues with a 25-10 record and 2.56 ERA. His WHIP (walk and hits to innings pitched) was a ridiculously low 1.000 in his three plus years in the minors.

Kennedy though is a more polished version of the Rays’ Sonnanstine; same type fastball, better change up and decent curve. Based upon his college pedigree and advanced command and better stuff, Kennedy even has a higher ceiling than Sonnanstine.

Sonnanstine transformed from a 6-10, 5.85 ERA, 77 ERA+ season in 2007 to a much improved 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 102 ERA+ last season. Sonnanstine’s success derives from that he doesn’t walk anybody, just 37 in 193.3 innings last season. He only walked 75 batters in 495 minor league innings.

Why did this improvement happen? Because Sonnanstine was allowed to pitch without worrying about his next start.

Also, the Rays defense improved. Sonnanstine doesn’t “miss many bats” but pitches to his defense. In 2007, the Rays ranked 30th in defensive efficiency, converting a smaller percentage of batted balls into outs than any other team. In 2008, the Rays finished first in team Defensive Efficiency, a remarkable turnaround.

Essentially, his defense made him look better than he actually was, but he is still a quality back-end guy because of his pitching smarts and command. The improvement in his defense helped improve his traditional numbers dramatically, perhaps making him look better than he really was.

Kennedy, as well as Phil Hughes, was pitching in front of a poor defense, which ranked 25th in the majors, 12th in the AL and last in the A.L. East in Defensive Efficiency. Essentially, the Yankees’ defense in 2008 was not good, and was one of the most overlooked parts of New York’s failure to reach the post season.

However, Kennedy basically pitched very poorly, allwoing an unusual (for him) amount of walks, and lots of home runs. His pinpoint control and complete mound presence was often missing.

Plus, the Yankees (and their fans) have little patience for young players, especially young pitchers.

What Kennedy needs is a team (like the Rays did with Sonnanstine) that will give him the ball and let him pitch without the inning by inning scrutiny he receives in New York. The Yankees also need to improve their defense. In the non-steroid era of today’s game (its really funny writing that after today’s admission by Alex Rodriguez), defense, youthfulness and speed have become primary factors in team success. Last season, the Rays showed how important all three are to winning.

Kennedy’s success throughout his career has been when his control is on. He needs to trust his stuff and have a better mound demeanor, which helps improve the image in the minds of umpires, an often overlooked part of pitching success.

Maybe the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres or Houston Astros have that patience. What the recent free agent signings of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte does is relegate Kennedy to AAA Scranton for the beginning of 2009, a level where he has dominated and need not have to prove anything.

Kennedy is a major league caliber pitcher and needs a major league rotation to prove himself. No more minor leagues, he doesn’t need “more seasoning.” In fact,  Kennedy was ready for the majors right out of college.

If the Yankees were smart, Kennedy and maybe Hughes would have been allowed to again pitch in New York and not Scranton, but unless injuries occur, Hughes and Kennedy together in the Yankee rotation is not going to happen. Kennedy should then be allowed to pitch well this season in Triple A Scranton and then moved for a needed young position player.

The Brewers have several good ones available (3B Mat Gamel, C Angel Salome, but especially SS Alcides Escobar) and the Yankees have a recent history with Doug Melvin in Milwaukee. Not to mention their December discussions regarding Melky Cabrera for Mike Cameron.

The Brewers are light in pitching and the Yankees are light in Derek Jeter replacements for the future. It is a match made in baseball heaven.

When Kennedy gets a chance to pitch every five days without constant scrutiny, he will become that effective pitcher the Yankees drafted in the first round in 2006.

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