Howie Kendrick is gone. And more of 2019 is slipping away.
Of the nine Nationals hitters in the starting lineup Oct. 30, 2019 in Houston, five are now off the team. Adam Eaton’s option was declined this offseason and he rejoined the Chicago White Sox. Anthony Rendon joined the Angels when the Nationals chose to pay Stephen Strasburg instead of him last year. Kendrick announced his retirement Monday. Asdrúbal Cabrera is a free agent. Ryan Zimmerman is a free agent.
Change often comes quick for championship teams. Annual turnover has little regard for winning a championship, even if the general manager tries to run it back, more or less, the following season.
No one knew of the tumult to come in 2020. Kendrick had a plan in place before everything turned upside down: he would play out the season and retire. His boys, Owen and Tyson, would have another summer of cavorting in the clubhouse. They could play catch with Chip Hale or hit with Juan Soto. Kendrick would, ideally, be walking to the plate around 400 times to hit line drives.
The kids never received a chance to come back to Nationals Park (expect them in tow for a 2019 celebration at some point in 2021). Kendrick ended up with just 91 at-bats. The Nationals finished tied for last place in the National League East Division. The year was just frustration in perpetuity. When Kendrick departed, he wondered what to do with what felt like a wasted season. Try to play again as a cleanse? Stay with his family in Arizona where he was already coaching his kids in the offseason? A long conversation was ahead.
Announcing his decision on Instagram on Monday night brought back hair-rising moments. Kendrick’s grand slam into center field at Dodger Stadium. His unlikely homer off the foul pole against Will Harris in Houston. They are the two biggest hits in the history of the franchise, both struck by someone who spent more than a decade as an opposite-field, line-drive hitting second baseman nicknamed “Truck” for the broadness of his shoulders. Kendrick averaged 13 homers per year during his 15-year career. To hit two in the biggest games of the 2019 postseason was unlikely, but so often it’s the unlikely which delivers titles.
Internally, Kendrick slid into Bryce Harper’s locker after the right fielder departed for Philadelphia. Kendrick was not far from Juan Soto and Victor Robles, just babies to him. He could relate more than may have been assumed: Kendrick debuted in the major leagues as a 22-year-old in 2006. He understood what it was like to need and receive some guidance in this new world. Which was a large part of what he provided in 2019. But larger was his outlier season.
Zimmerman’s injury forced Kendrick onto the field much more often than the Nationals anticipated. Kendrick’s 2019 OPS was 164 points higher than the second-best mark of his career when he played 120 games or more. He never slugged above .500 before 2019 when he hit 23 doubles and 17 home runs in just 334 at-bats, romping to a .572 slugging percentage. He saved the middle of the lineup.
As recently as last week, Mike Rizzo said they would welcome back Kendrick in 2021 should the circumstances allow. Kendrick, to their knowledge, still planned to play. Though his wife’s Instagram post on her private account more than a week prior said he was going to retire.
The next chapter is coming for both the organization and Kendrick. Washington still has multiple needs, will consider a right-left platoon at first base and will not need a DH. The Nationals do need to retool and drag themselves back to prominence after a lost 2020. Kendrick will be in Arizona where he warned his family on Instagram he was now “looking forward to being a constant pain in your butt day in and day out.”
Everyone involved will always have 2019 to reminisce about. Kendrick’s wife, Jody, posted a picture of Kendrick looking at his World Series ring. Kendrick used a picture of him with his family, the World Series trophy and gold glitter fluttering down. The Nationals’ Twitter account used a photo of him holding the trophy at the parade. He’s done, but those memories are not.