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Howie Kendrick overcame career-threatening injury. Now he’s a playoff hero

Howie Kendrick overcame career-threatening injury. Now he’s a playoff hero

Howie Kendrick lay in a heap on the outfield grass at Nationals Park, a grimace creasing his face. 
 
The diagnosis: A torn right Achilles tendon. During an otherwise nondescript first game of a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 19, 2018, just eight weeks before his 35th birthday, Kendrick’s career was suddenly in question. 
 
Seventeen months later, Kendrick had one of the great days of his career on Monday night. And this is a man who just last week hit a grand slam to secure a National League Division series upset over the Dodgers. 
 
For the first time since 2008, back when he was a third-year, part-time player for the Los Angeles Angels, Kendrick hit three doubles in a game. That outburst helped put the Nationals one win away from the World Series in an 8-1 victory that gave them a 3-0 series lead in the National League Championship Series. 
 
“I guess some of the best things come from the unexpected moments,” Kendrick said. 
 
A two-out double in the third inning gave Washington a 4-0 lead. With two out in the fifth, Kendrick did it again. That one drove home Anthony Rendon to make it 5-0. Kendrick scored the sixth run when Ryan Zimmerman followed with a double. One more two-out double in the seventh inning set the stage for yet another Zimmerman double and Kendrick’s run made it 8-1. 
 
Maybe this should be no surprise. Kendrick has always been able to hit. He batted .344 in 121 games this season. Now 36, Kendrick allows that he can’t play every day. So Washington manager Davey Martinez used him a few times a week. Kendrick started 70 games - 35 at first base, 18 at second base and another 10 at third with seven games in American League ballparks as the designated hitter. He came off the bench 51 more times. 
 
It all helped keep Kendrick fresh and, other than a 10-day stint on the Injured List at the beginning of August with a hamstring strain, it kept him healthy, too. 
 
“He wants it, and the rest of his teammates feed off of that, and they see it,” Martinez said. “We're all big fans of Howie. Every one of us in that clubhouse, and what he does on the field, off the field. He's been that quiet leader for us all year long.”
 
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle remembers their battles in the late innings of A.L. West games when he pitched for the Oakland A’s and Kendrick was still with the Angels. Almost every at bat became a war of attrition. You might get Kendrick out. Most of the time he took a piece of you with him back to the bench. 
 
“I saw more than enough of him when he was in Anaheim and I was in Oakland. He just grinds out at bats. He doesn’t give you anything,” Doolittle said. “He’s added length to this lineup hitting in that five, six spot. People think once they navigate [Anthony] Rendon and [Juan] Soto…I don’t know if they overlook him a little bit, but it’s almost like they let their guard down and he gets them.”  
 
Kendrick is a Swiss army knife. He can platoon at first base, he fills in at second and third. Martinez chose not to risk him in the outfield this season, where his legs would take an unnecessary pounding. But late in games, he was a weapon off the bench and a nightmare matchup for opposing managers with 13 pinch hits in 36 at bats (.361). And his teammates loved that Kendrick embraced that role. 
 
Because he had signed a two-year contract with Washington before the 2018 season, Kendrick was shielded from the harsh realities of free agency for a soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off an Achilles tear. The Nationals saw how well Kendrick’s rehab was progressing. They were hopeful they’d have his unique skill set back for 2019. But no one knew for sure.  
 
“That was really scary when that happened,” Doolittle said. “But the dude is a beast man.”
 
Added teammate Adam Eaton: “It’s an Achilles and he’s 30-whatever years old. There’s definitely always a question mark. But if you know Howie and you’re around him, you know he’s one of the hardest workers. He’s dedicated. He knows his body really well and it shows. It’s unbelievable how he’s been able to come back and produce so effectively.”
 
Kendrick worked on his swing throughout the offseason with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long. They both live in the Phoenix area and the first time Kendrick met Long he was handed a sheet of paper with ideas for how he could develop a more efficient swing. That was unexpected, but welcome. 
 
Kendrick gave former manager Dusty Baker some thanks, too. All that work continued into the 2018 season with Long and Washington assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon, but the injury ruined a good start to the season. 
 
It’s a testament to just how much Washington relies on Kendrick that before his grand slam against the Dodgers he was taking heat maybe for the first time all year. Kendrick had 5 hits in his first 22 playoff at-bats with just one RBI and all his hits were singles. He’d also made three errors in the field at first and second base. 
 
All of that changed with the Game 5 NLDS grand slam that will make him a legend in the District forever. He is 5-for-12 against the Cardinals with four doubles and four RBI in just three games. He and his teammates are one win away from an N.L. pennant. Howie Kendrick is absorbing the moment.  
 
“I enjoy it all because without all the mistakes and all the hardships and all the successes earlier in my career, none of this would be available,” Kendrick said. “None of this would be possible without all that. I talk with Max [Scherzer] quite a bit, and we're like, man, don't you wish you could go back and be how you are now then? And he goes, no, I wouldn't change it because all those failures are helping you with the success now. And I think that's the way I look at it. Even now my failures still help me be successful. You appreciate it even more.” 

 

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

It was a difficult Wednesday evening for Nationals fans, who were forced to swallow a tough dose of reality when reports surfaced that Anthony Rendon was signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s thrust the team into a thin third base market headlined by Josh Donaldson but doesn’t boast many viable options beyond him. Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado were both mentioned in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, but the Nationals would be hard-pressed to acquire either of them with the significant prospect capital that would be requested in return.

But another option emerged Thursday night when The Athletic reported that the “possibility is increasing” of the Seattle Mariners trading Kyle Seager. The 32-year-old veteran has hit just .236 since 2017 but has at least 20 home runs each of the past eight seasons. Originally thought to be untradeable, Seager has reportedly drawn the interest of “multiple teams.”

The Mariners signed Seager to a seven-year, $100 million contract after a 2014 season in which he posted a .788 OPS and won a Gold Glove. The wrinkle in Seager’s trade value, however, is a $15 million team option for 2022 that converts to a player option if traded. That would guarantee him $52 million over the next three seasons, giving pause to teams who might be wary about his ability to perform at the plate.

But with Donaldson expected to garner a four-year deal despite entering his age-34 season, Arenado signed for $234 million over the next eight years and the Chicago Cubs likely seeking top prospects in return for Bryant, Seager may be the most affordable option for a team like the Nationals.

Washington’s farm system ranks among the lower third of the league, boasting just two consensus top-100 prospects in Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. The Nationals likely wouldn’t be able to compete with clubs that have deeper farm systems for Bryant, while Arenado is signed to a similar deal that Rendon just received. As for Donaldson, Washington is certainly in the running but is far from the only team interested and could very well lose out.

Seager presents All-Star upside and while he’d be due salaries north of $18 million each of the next two years with the 2022 player option, that would be at worst about the same average annual value Donaldson is likely to demand at two years older. In addition, Seager’s $19.5 million salary next season is just above Rendon’s 2019 total of $18.8 million, making the increase in payroll at the position would be marginal.

It’d by no means replace the production the Nationals lost when Rendon signed with the Angels, but trading for Seager would certainly be a more attractive option than signing the remaining third basemen left in free agency beyond Donaldson: Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt, Todd Frazier, Pablo Sandoval and Maikel Franco, just to name a few.

Seattle doesn’t appear likely to make a trade anytime soon, but Seager’s trade availability will be worth watching as the offseason progresses.

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