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A Pitch for Kyle Kendrick

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Each of the four candidates for that last spot in the Phillies' starting rotation offers a pretty interesting baseball story. J.A. Happ, the rookie left-hander who probably starts camp as the front-runner for the job, looks like a power pitcher at six and a half feet tall, but his style of setting up hitters with location and deception rather than blowing them away is more suggestive of the Northwestern University grad he is. Chan Ho Park, the team's big offseason addition on the pitching side, carries the stigma of having signed one of the worst contracts in baseball history but took a first stride toward redemption with a big season for the Dodgers in 2008. Carlos Carrasco, the phenom of the bunch, is generally regarded as a front-of-the-rotation talent, but has yet to show the consistency and mental toughness he'll need to thrive in the majors. 

Then there's Kyle Kendrick, who has probably a better recent track record than any of them as well as perhaps the lowest expectations. The 24 year-old sinker specialist has a 21-13 career record and started Game Two of the 2007 playoffs for the Phillies as a rookie; he won 18 of his first 37 big-league starts, against 7 losses. But the peripherals were never there, as Kendrick averaged less than a strikeout every two innings; he pitched in exceptionally good fortune with runners on base through his first full season or so in the majors, and then suddenly he didn't. By September 2008, he was out of the rotation, and he watched the playoffs with as little bearing on the outcome as you or I. (Unlike Adam Eaton, however, he did go to the parade.) 

Kendrick was somewhat babied through his first major-league spring training in 2008--other than the now-legendary traded-to-Japan prank, of course--suggesting that manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee were perhaps more concerned with sustaining Kendrick's confidence than pushing him to excel out of the gate. He pitched in a number of minor-league exhibitions last spring, and was hit hard in several games against big-league clubs. But after two shaky starts to begin the season, he was effective for about four months before collapsing in the last third of the year. This year, though, he's coming to camp with no guarantees, and he seems to know it. 

Whether Kendrick will make it or not likely depends on whether he can master a changeup to complement his signature sinking fastball. He claims to have thrown the pitch "every day" this winter, and undoubtedly its progress or lack thereof will be the focus of attention from Manuel and Dubee. 

Looking at Kendrick's most comparable pitchers from Baseball-Reference suggests that there might be more grounds for optimism than many of us probably suspect. Kendrick's single best comp through age 23 is former teammate (and namesake) Kyle Lohse, whose first couple seasons do indeed bear a resemblance. Lohse developed a couple decent offerings to go along with his fastball, as Kendrick now must do. A bit further down the list is Jason Jennings, who had a few strong seasons for Colorado in the first half of this decade before lighting out for the Lone Star State, where his baseball fortunes sagged. And number 10 on Kendrick's comp list is Chris Carpenter, who shook off early-career inconsistency to eventually claim a Cy Young Award. 

None of which is to say that Kendrick is very likely to start the season in the Phillies' rotation. But given the heavy workloads of the top four starters last season, some injuries are unfortunately likely, with resultant opportunities for one or more of this spring's also-rans. Two years ago, Kyle Kendrick came out of nowhere in just such a scenario to help lift the team into the playoffs; it wouldn't be a total shock to see that happen again.