Texas Rangers gave Ian Kennedy a chance for a job. Now, he’s the AL leader in saves

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Based on where the Texas Rangers were entering Friday in the American League West standings — not in last place and one game below .500 — it might not come as a surprise that their bullpen is home to the league leader in saves.

Based on preseason expectations, which pegged the Rangers as one of the worst teams in baseball, it is a surprise.

And that it’s Ian Kennedy leading the pack, after not joining the team until after spring training started and doing so on a minor-league deal, well ... yeah, that’s a surprise, too.

He was deserving of better as a former 21-game winner and the owner of a 30-save campaign only two seasons ago. But COVID-19 altered the financial landscape in the game last offseason, and his subpar 2020 showing didn’t bring many suitors to his doorstep.

Kennedy might not be a closer on all 30 MLB teams, but he’s the closer on one and making the case that teams shouldn’t ignore him next offseason or even ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

For now, though, he’s glad his offseason is behind him and he’s part of one of the hottest and youngest bullpens in baseball.

“I’m doing what I know I could do,” Kennedy said. “Now it’s a little bit of a normal workload and normal preparation. I really believe that everything happens for a reason. Being here, I feel really at home. It’s more of getting back to what I did in 2019. I wasn’t going to let 2020 determine who I was. It’s been a lot of fun so far this season.”

Kennedy entered the first game of three-game series against the Seattle Mariners at Globe Life Field with nine saves in nine tries, two of which came Tuesday and Wednesday as the Rangers took three of four games from the Minnesota Twins.

He had a 1.93 ERA, and his success was due in large part to impeccable control. He didn’t walk his first batter of the season until Wednesday in his 14th appearance, and he has 20 strikeouts.

“When we signed Kennedy, we knew we were getting a pretty reliable guy,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I didn’t know his fastball would play like it has. He’s getting a ton of swing and miss with it. He’s just doing his thing.”

Kennedy will make $2.1 million this season plus incentives. He’s not the only player who had to wait out the market in the offseason, including former Rangers pitcher and Kennedy’s friend Joakim Soria.

Kennedy’s 2020 included a calf strain and a 9.00 ERA in his final season with the Kansas City Royals. He was never able to get into a routine, in part because of the 60-game summer that qualified as the 2020 season.

The Rangers and the Royals were the two teams who courted him in February, when players start to get the itch to be in spring camp.

“The offseason was a long offseason, but the last week was really tough,” Kennedy said. “You saw a lot of free agents who were big-leaguers, not just borderline, guys who had a lot of big-league success, and they didn’t have jobs or they were getting a lot of offers that were half of what they would be valued.”

Kennedy was headed toward a set-up role before right-handers Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez were lost for the season with elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery.

Matt Bush was another candidate to get saves until he was shut down with a strained flexor tendon.

Kennedy is by far the most senior member of the bullpen at 36 and in his 15th MLB season. The average age of the rest of the bullpen is 26.6, but that includes 33-year-old Hyeon-Jong Yang.

The other seven are in their 20s, and five of the relievers are rookies. They are watching Kennedy perform and picking his brain whenever they need advice.

“I pick it a lot, but most of the time I just watch,” rookie right-hander Josh Sborz said. “I watch how he carries himself, how warms up, how he throws, the things that are important to him. He’s done it for a really long time, and just paying attention to his tendencies is what I pay attention to.”

Kennedy has given the rookies plenty to watch, and as a unit the bullpen had an MLB-best 1.80 ERA the past 13 games.

“First and foremost, they have talent,” Woodward said. “The conviction these guys have in what they’re doing right now is why they’re having success.”