Throughout the 1980 classic film The Blues Brothers, the titular characters spend the opening act of the movie tracking down members of their old band. As they visit their old bandmates, they declare their mission with a short sentence, one of the most memorable lines in the movie: “We’re putting the band back together.”
In many ways, this statement reflects one of the tertiary narratives surrounding the 2022 Yankees. First, they brought back Manny Bañuelos on a minor league deal back in January. At the end of spring training, they signed Greg Bird to a minor league deal, while May saw them bring back Shane Greene. Those names have all departed, but Albert Abreu was dealt less than a week away from spring training, only to return to big league club two months later (Tyler Wade’s back in the organization after his November trade to the Angels, too.) On top of all this, they attempted to sign Rob Refsnyder over the winter, although he wound up coming to terms with the Boston Red Sox.
Might former top prospect Ian Kennedy, originally traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010 as part of a three-team deal that brought Curtis Granderson to the Bronx, be the next to come back home? His origins with the team date back even further than Bañuelos and Greene, to the 2006 MLB Draft.
When you look at the numbers, it seems ridiculous to think that the Yankees need bullpen reinforcements. Their relievers have accrued 4.8 fWAR, second-most in the Majors behind only Atlanta, while their 2.99 ERA ranks behind only Houston. Over the weekend, however, the situation greatly changed, as Michael King fractured his elbow, ending his season. With Chad Green already out for 2022, Jonathan Loáisiga struggling to repeat his 2021 success, and Aroldis Chapman frankly at the tail end of his career, the bullpen is suddenly in dire need of reinforcements. Matt made the case for Daniel Bard earlier today and Peter will do so later with Michael Fulmer, but what about IPK?
As a veteran reliever on a last-place team who is a free agent after the season, Kennedy is almost surely going to be traded. Because of this, any team — the Yankees included — will certainly be able to acquire him for little more than a low-level prospect, so acquiring him would not prevent the team from doing anything else. But does spending a roster spot on Kennedy even make sense?
At this point in his career, nobody would mistake the 37-year-old for the dominant closer he was with the Rangers last season, or even the above-average one he was with the Royals in 2019; he’s striking out the fewest batters he has since transitioning to the bullpen (21.1 K%) and walking more than he has since his days with the Yankees (10.2 BB%). Even so, his traditional stats, however, are more than serviceable, as he’s posted a 3.45 ERA in 28.2 innings. For low-leverage depth in the bullpen of a contender, that’s an acceptable innings-eater.
However, the question isn’t what he has done, but instead, what he will do going forward. And for Kennedy, there are a lot of reasons for pessimism.
There’s a lot of blue there, and almost no red. To quote a former Yankees manager, “It’s not what you want.”
To make matters worse, Kennedy ranks last in the league in groundball rate among the 244 relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, getting hitters to put the ball on the ground just 20.7 percent of the time. Even worse, his 49.4 percent fly ball rate ranks 25th; that would be worst on the Yankees, higher than even Chapman’s 47.3 percent. Statcast paints a picture not of an effective middle reliever capable of eating innings, but rather of a reliever who does not strike out many batters, who issues a lot of walks, and generates a lot of hard contact, and can’t keep the ball on the ground — in other words, a recipe for disaster in the Bronx.
Outings like this one below from Kennedy at Wrigley Field on May 22nd feel like a definite possibility at Yankee Stadium.
Kennedy can’t even claim that he’s been healthy this year either, as he only just returned from an IL stint in which he battled right calf inflammation. The right-hander has thus only thrown 2.1 innings during this month of July.
The chances are that some team desperate for bullpen help is going to send the Diamondbacks a low-level prospect in the hope that they can squeeze the last bit of effective pitching out of Kennedy. The Yankees, however, ought to steer clear from major question marks and instead focus their attention on more reliable relievers.