Nationals

First base is Nationals’ strangest offseason situation

Nationals

Think of the last time this concept was in play: two players may retire at the same time, creating a hole at a position.

It’s unusual. Veteran players are often mixed with younger ones to back up now and prepare for later. Having multiple older players in one spot is usually not how roster building works. Yet, it’s where the Nationals are in the offseason.

Howie Kendrick, 37, may retire. He shares a mutual contract option with the team. Ryan Zimmerman, 36, may retire. He is a free agent who has a public-appearance contract with the team if he no longer plays. The team also shares a mutual option with Eric Thames. They will not pick it up. Which leaves first base empty, at the moment.

First, Kendrick. He would have an answer to this question were 2020 a normal season. Kendrick said he was prepared to retire after the Nationals tried to defend their title. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic turned the year into something never before seen. His two sons were not allowed in the park. His family sat in Arizona while he sat in a Washington residence. Frequent trips to the trainer’s room cut him to just 91 at-bats. In all, the year of tumult left him flummoxed.

“I want to get healthy first, and talk with my family and then decide,” Kendrick said at the end of the season. “Because right now, being hurt, I wasn’t too happy about finishing this way. We’ll see what happens. I don’t want to say yes, and I don’t want to say no. Because right now, I really don’t have an answer.”

 

His sons are a factor. They previously told Kendrick he can’t retire because they need another year hanging around the clubhouse. But, being away all these years -- 15 in the majors -- is also an issue. Dad hasn’t been home for large chunks of the year. And being together during baseball is not the same as being together without it.

“I’ll be sad that I’m leaving the game of baseball, but I’m gaining so much when I go home with my family,” Kendrick said of prospective retirement.”My kids, they’ll be growing up and I’ll get to have that impact on them. Not only do I get to impact some of the younger guys around here, but my kids I can impact every day.

“They’re doing sports. My oldest son, Owen, I know he misses me. Talks about it with my wife. Then my younger son, Tyson, he plays like he doesn’t miss me, but he does. When you see that -- when you hear that in their voice -- as much as I love baseball, I would say family is more important. At the end of the day, that’s why I am going to sit down and talk with them and see what they really want me to do. Because it’s not just my decision. I’ve given so much to baseball, to be able to get back to them means more to me.”

Zimmerman spent the year with his family after opting not to play. Questions around him have never before been asked: Does a 36-year-old benefit from a healthy year off? Does having a taste of retirement (in a strange situation) make someone want to return or stay home? Did his body gain because of the rest? Did he become slower because he didn’t swing for months?

These dual unknowns put Mike Rizzo in an odd position. The first base market, like much of the free agent class overall, is mediocre. Anthony Rizzo will be the premier option if the Cubs decline his $14.5 million option. Otherwise, players like C.J. Cron, Mitch Moreland, Justin Smoak and Jake Lamb populate the list at first base. All have significant limitations.

Which puts Kendrick and Zimmerman in a different light. There is no internal option to replace them. And, the Nationals would need a platoon situation at first base if either were back on the roster. So, is it worth it to just try it again? One more time with the older guys? In all likelihood, one last time? Will they even give the team the chance to consider it? Or will they both choose to come to the hardest conclusion for an athlete?

It’s a strange set of circumstances, which, really, makes it normal this year.