Ian Kennedy finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting two years ago. (David Goldman/AP)
Pitchers who have won 21 games in a season are no strangers to deadline day deals, but Wednesday’s trade of Ian Kennedy sent him opposite the customary direction, as he went from the contending Diamondbacks to the rebuilding Padres.
Kennedy, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2011 when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, was shipped by Arizona to San Diego from lefty reliever Joe Thatcher (2.10 ERA in 30 innings), righthanded Double A reliever Matt Stites (51-to-8 K/BB ratio) and a draft pick in 2014’s compensation Round B (which spanned pick Nos. 69-73 last year).
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers clearly did not figure that Kennedy -- who is just 3-8 with a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts that have averaged less than six innings this season -- had a place in the team's short-term or long-term plans. Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill will soon be returning from the disabled list to join Wade Miley and Patrick Corbin in the team's starting rotation, and prospects such as Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley are moving quickly through the system. Kennedy is making a shade under $4.3 million this year and figures to get a raise in arbitration next year.
Kennedy is a flyball pitcher with the fourth-worst groundball-to-flyball rate in the National League, which didn't play well in the high, dry air of Arizona’s Chase Field. Relatedly, he’s tied for fourth in the league in home runs surrendered. Even after Petco Park moved in its fences this offseason, Kennedy still figures to fare much better in San Diego, where for his career he is 3-1 with a 2.27 ERA in 35 2/3 innings and only three homers allowed.
The Diamondbacks receive one of the game’s best lefthanded relievers in Thatcher -- he has a 2.55 ERA in 151 2/3 innings since the start of the 2009 season and a .190 average allowed to lefthanded batters during that span -- as well as a reliever in Stites, who has a 1.53 ERA in 135 1/3 career minor league innings (though only 52 have been as high as Double A). A draft pick at the end of the second round also has value both for the player the D-backs can select and for the extra bonus pool money they receive.
This clearly seems to be a good deal for the Padres, who bought low on a starting pitcher with high potential. Interestingly, Kennedy was re-acquired by general manager Josh Byrnes, who was Arizona’s GM in 2009 when a three-team deal landed Kennedy from the Diamondbacks. It’s hard to forget potential and flashes of excellence, so if San Diego can straighten out Kennedy -- the ballpark will help too -- then this is a very good deal for a club that has struggled to find consistent starting pitching, which is a commodity not usually acquired for two relievers and a draft pick.
It’s harder to give a verdict for the Diamondbacks. They filled a need for a lefty reliever in Thatcher, but they also expended a starting pitcher from a rotation that has been substandard this season. Their hope is that the returns of Cahill and McCarthy -- both up to Triple A in rehab appearances -- will be the answer as they chase the resurgent Dodgers in the NL West.
The odd wrinkle is that Towers was previously San Diego’s GM, meaning the two top baseball decision-makers had literally been in each others’ offices and were re-acquiring players they had already once traded for. Byrnes, as noted, got Kennedy again, while Towers made his second trade for Thatcher. Towers, more than any other GM, puts a real premium on building the best possible bullpen. That’s a notoriously perilous enterprise, though Towers has a better track record there than most.
The fate of this deal will ride on two outcomes: First, whether or not the Diamondbacks can edge out the Dodgers in the NL West thanks to improved late-game relief and second, if Kennedy ever returns to his ace-like form. The answer to the former will likely come much sooner than the answer to the latter.