A Halfhearted Defense of the Kyle Kendrick Contract

This afternoon, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the Phillies have avoided arbitration with RHP Kyle Kendrick by signing him to a one-year, $3.585 million contract that seems structured specifically to irritate people who write about such things by making us type out the dollar value to the thousand-dollar place.

As the news broke, my Twitter feed was dominated by reactions to the Kendrick signing, ranging from resignation, to fear, to what I assume is a potshot at Darren Rovell, to mocking incredulity, to more mocking incredulity, to unbridled snark, to a dose of placid rationality with an unflattering comparison. For a while, my window to the internet was almost entirely dominated by Kyle Kendrick, with a little bit of France Football‘s Philippe Auclair musing about the political legitimacy of credit rating systems.

The point is, no one seems to really like that the Phillies re-signed Kyle Kendrick.

So what of Kendrick and his contract? Well, Bill wrote earlier this afternoon in big friendly letters, “Don’t Panic,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Kendrick, an extremely durable swingman who never walks anyone and goes from the rotation to the bullpen to Lehigh Valley without ever uttering a word of complaint, is more valuable a piece than we might realize. Perhaps no team relies more on (or expects more from, at any rate) its starting rotation than the Phillies do, so having a Kendrick to plug in for 15 starts might come in handy if one or the other of Joe Blanton‘s elbow or Vance Worley‘s two-seamer prove to be less reliable than expected. If nothing else, we know that Kendrick can come in and pitch slightly-better-than-replacement-level ball for six innings or so on very little notice.

I probably wouldn’t be making this argument if not for the 2011 Red Sox, who, I would argue, missed out on the playoffs last year for want of a pitcher like Kendrick. While the Red Sox went into the season with a projected rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. That group included the reigning AL ERA champion (Buchholz), one of the four or five best young left-handed starters under 30 (Lester), two guys who, while wildly overpaid, were expected to at least be mediocre (Lester and Dice-K), and Josh Beckett. Not a bad group, on the whole.

Well, in the blink of an eye, Buchholz and Matsuzaka were out for the season, Beckett missed a couple starts (though he went on to post the best season of his career, by ERA+ and bWAR), and Lackey suffered what I’ve come to call the Alex Fernandez Injury. In Game 2 of the 1997 NLCS against Atlanta, Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez blew out his arm but stayed out on the mound at least an inning after it became clear that someone had set off a grenade inside his elbow. After being horrified and fascinated by this incident, I’ve thought of Fernandez every time I’ve watched a pitcher do his elbow, then try to get by 81-mph arrows in the vain hope of the velocity, movement, or location coming back.

While the Marlins yanked Ferndandez after 2 2/3 innings, the Red Sox trotted Lackey back out there for another two months or so with the inside of his elbow resembling nothing so much as the mangled inner workings of the Cylon Raider that Starbuck fixed up in that episode of Battlestar Galactica. So the Red Sox traded for Eric Bedard, who was hurt and ineffective. Then they found themselves in the stretch run with only two effective, healthy pitchers: Beckett and Lester. The other three spots in the rotation went to the injured Lackey, the aged Tim Wakefield, and the ineffective Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland. In 1949, the Red Sox reeled off an 11-game winning streak over the last two weeks of the season by going to a two-man rotation–over the last 20 games of the season, the Red Sox only won two games that where neither Mel Parnell nor Ellis Kinder recorded a win or a save. When Beckett and Lester were unable to duplicate that success, the Red Sox were screwed.

The presence of Kendrick, who almost certainly won’t be able to duplicate his 3.22 ERA of last season, makes such a disaster profoundly unlikely for the Phillies in the coming year. Now, is $3.6 million too much to pay for a pitcher with a career 4.65 xFIP? Probably, but not disastrously so. He’s almost certain to come down from his excellent 2011, unless his BABIP stays at .261. But with the cost of a marginal win hovering somewhere north of $5 million for this season, Kendrick doesn’t have to be particularly good to justify his contract–about 2/3 of a win will do nicely, and even if he comes up a bit short, overspending by $1 million or so on Kendrick isn’t a disaster for a team whose utter contempt for prudent stewardship of its monetary resources is made clear by the contracts extended to Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, and Jonathan Papelbon, while Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Madson merited little more attention than a panhandler at the PATCO stop at 8th and Market.

And there’s the old adage about there being no such thing as a bad one-year contract.

All in all, there’s a lot to like about this deal: short duration, relatively low cost and expectations, and it fills a need. All in all, Kyle Kendrick is like a slightly overpriced spare tire–kind of irritating if you don’t need him, but absolutely essential if you do. If you want to feel good about the Phillies, you can stop reading now.

HOWEVER.

Today, MLB Trade Rumors noted that the price has come down for the top starting pitchers remaining in the free agent market, including Roy Oswalt, who, it is said, would accept a one-year, $8 million contract. Hiroki Kuroda could be had for $10-11 million. I’ve always liked Kuroda, but his age and his price probably eliminate the Phillies from contention. Of course, if the Phillies hadn’t signed Joe Blanton, Jonathan Papelbon, and Kendrick to deals no one was crazy about when they were signed, they’d have room on their payroll for Kuroda, Madson, and probably one other pitcher. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

But let’s compare  how the three have done, in terms of fWAR, since Kuroda joined the National League in 2008.

As you can see, Oswalt and Kuroda, each in a relative down year, were each somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 times more valuable than Kendrick was. Of course, Kuroda threw a little less than twice as many innings than Kendrick, so let’s say that Kuroda was six times more valuable than Kendrick, per inning pitched, and set aside the intrinsic value that innings pitched have. Oswalt threw about 20 percent more innings than Kendrick, so let’s call him ten times more valuable in 2011.

This is what drives me absolutely busalooey about the way the Phillies do business. They tendered Kyle Kendrick for arbitration, knowing that he’d be in for a multi-million-dollar payday, when better options were out there. Kendrick had a good 2011, buoyed by unsustainably low batted ball numbers. For reference, Happ posted a .261 BABIP, a 4.43 xFIP, and a 2.93 ERA in 2009. In 2011, Happ’s BABIP returned to a relatively normal .297, and his xFIP rose slightly, to 4.59, but his ERA was 5.35. Amazing what a little bit of luck can do to you.

But the Phillies, because of ontological blindness, naivete, or sheer force of their intractably reactionary institutional philosophy, have once again spent $3.6 million on a pitcher with a career low 4.04 xFIP, when $8 million would have nabbed them a pitcher with a career high 3.97 xFIP, or $10 million would have landed them a pitcher with a career high 3.89 xFIP. Imagine shopping for beer like this. Signing Kendrick to this contract with Oswalt and Kuroda where they are in the market is like going to Canal’s, passing the 24-pack of Sam Adams for $12, then passing the Great Lakes variety 24-pack for $15, then deciding you’d rather spend six bucks on two pounders of Beast Light. Those are not the actions of an informed shopper. I know this and I just spent 20 minutes on Google and three minutes tooling around in Excel. The Phillies are an organization worth half a billion dollars or more, with hundreds of full-time employees. How can they not be aware of this?

In a vacuum, re-signing Kendrick is a nice, if slightly pricey insurance policy. Given that the Phillies appear willing to sign Cole Hamels to a one-year deal rather than locking him up long-term (what possible purpose this could serve is a mystery to me), keeping Kendrick on at this price is hardly the most actively harmful personnel decision the Phillies have made this week. And I’ll grant you, that by price, age, and role, Oswalt and Kuroda aren’t completely fair comparisons to Kendrick. But the Phillies have so gravely miscalculated the value of starting pitchers this offseason that if NASA were so off-base, they’d have sent Apollo 11 straight into the center of the Earth.

So did the Phillies do well to re-sign Kendrick? It depends on how you look at it.

Phillies Sign Kyle Kendrick for $3.585 Million

News! With a general doff of ye olde ballcap to the Phillies beat, we have learned that Kyle Kendrick will earn $3.585 million during the 2012 season. This was essentially a formality as Kendrick was not among those non-tendered at the December 12 deadline.

Kendrick earned $2.45 million last season when the two parties similarly avoided arbitration. The right-hander made 15 starts and 19 relief appearances, providing value as a swingman throughout the season. He finished the season with a 3.22 ERA, a career-low, including 3.14 as a starter and 3.41 as a reliever. He figures to work in the same role in 2012 with the Phillies’ rotation set in stone, barring some unforeseen news involving Joe Blanton.

That Kendrick was given $3.585 million shouldn’t surprise anyone as a result of his not being non-tendered. At the time, I argued that the Phillies should cut their ties with him. Since they didn’t, Kendrick’s salary is neither shocking nor cause for outrage. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Kendrick would earn $3.2 million if he were to go to arbitration, so the Phillies only overpaid by about $400,000, or roughly the Major League minimum salary. Meanwhile, the Phillies maintain a reliable back-up plan in the event of an injury or a change of scenery for Blanton, and they add one of their vaunted veterans to the bullpen.

In terms of raw skill, Kendrick leaves a lot to be desired. Between 2007-08 and ’10-11 (he spent most of ’09 in Triple-A), his lowest xFIP is 4.42. He doesn’t miss bats very often and he possesses no unique batted ball skills. In the event the Phillies limit his exposure to left-handed hitters, Kendrick’s numbers could be better (4.03 xFIP vs. RHB; 5.36 vs. LHB), but you simply don’t see ROOGYs in baseball, especially not on a Charlie Manuel-managed team. The Good Phight’s Taco Pal argues that Kendrick may have made a significant improvement last season, but we’ll need more data before we can make any strong conclusions. The most we can say at this point is that he is a below-average pitcher.

Overall, Kendrick’s salary won’t make much of a difference on the 2012 roster. While the Phillies will be nudging up against the luxury tax, Kendrick’s earnings will not make it any more difficult for the Phillies to get Cole Hamels signed to a multi-year extension. To use a cliche, it is what it is. The Phillies keep a reliable arm around at a slightly above-average rate relative to Kendrick’s skill level and the market. That’s just fine.

Michael Baumann will have more on this topic soon.