PEORIA, Ariz. — Ian Kennedy will make $6.1 million this season. For a small-market club like the San Diego Padres, that’s a lot of money to pay for mediocrity.
If Kennedy, 29, can be better than that — and a full season of home games at Petco Park should be helpful — he could give the Padres’ intriguing rotation a nice veteran boost. Their starters include Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, two rising young pitchers with plenty of stuff. Josh Johnson is a dependable, proven starter if he’s healthy, which has been the case this spring. And Eric Stults is a finesse left-hander, who wore down in the final month of 2013 but gave the Padres 200 innings.
Kennedy has worked at least 180 innings each of the past four years, although he may never come close to the heights he reached in 2011 when he went 21-4 for the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 2.88 ERA in 222 innings. That season, Kennedy could rely on at least one of his offspeed pitches each start and said everything felt good. By contrast, before the Diamondbacks traded him to the Padres on July 31, Kennedy said, “Every time I went out there, I had that C- stuff, maybe a D, and (was) trying to pitch with that every single start except maybe a couple.”
At the time of the trade, Kennedy was 3-8 with a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts for the Diamondbacks. He made 10 starts for the Padres and went 4-2 with a 4.24 ERA, and in eight starts at pitcher-friendly Petco Park, Kennedy was 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA.
With the Diamondbacks last season, Kennedy said the slide step he used while pitching out of the stretch led to bad habits that he said “kind of leaked” into all his pitches — out of the stretch or windup — before being traded to the Padres.
“I was getting under the ball,” Kennedy said. “My fastball command was terrible all last year (before the trade). I felt like I was never on top of the ball.”
Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley and manager Bud Black, a former pitcher, told Kennedy they weren’t going to do anything drastic but wanted to offer a few suggestions. To which, Kennedy said, “I stink right now, anything you got for me.”
What Balsley had was a fundamental mound tenet presented slightly differently. “Instead of (talking about) staying back, it was wait for my (left) leg to get all the way up and then go toward the plate,” Kennedy said. “It sounds so easy, but when you have runners on and try to be quick, it doesn’t allow your arm to catch up and you’re pushing everything toward home plate.”
The result is pitches that are up and very hittable. Kennedy, like many pitchers, doesn’t have enough stuff to survive those mistakes, even at Petco Park.
The Padres have him under control for two years. If his command is better this year, Kennedy can be a viable starter. If not, it’s likely that with a raise coming, he won’t be pitching for the small-market Padres after this season.