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What are the chances of Howie Kendrick returning to the Nationals?

What are the chances of Howie Kendrick returning to the Nationals?

Davey Martinez’s handling of Howie Kendrick was a point of contention back when his managerial ability was held in less esteem. The Nationals struggled, Kendrick did not, and the question was why Kendrick didn’t play more.

The situation tested Martinez. One of his few early-season answers needed to be slow-played, not pushed, so he could be part of the effort later -- if there was a later. Kendrick started the season on the injured list. He was coming off a lost year after tearing his Achilles tendon. He would soon be 36 years old. Martinez had every reason to protect or play him. He just had to decide which.

His decision to take it slow with Kendrick became a key to the postseason. Kendrick's grand slam against Los Angeles will long stand as one of the biggest hits in organization history. His two-run homer against Houston may supersede in the organization’s annals. And the wonder this offseason is if Kendrick will provide anything else to Washington.

He’s 36. Somehow, 2019 became the best offensive season of his 14-year career. Kendrick’s .966 OPS was 122 points higher than the second-best total in his career. However, those two years came near each other. His 2017 work -- split between Philadelphia and Washington -- led to what appeared to be an outlier then, an .844 OPS, before his 2019 surge. 

Kendrick is a free agent. He’s the oldest free agent to be considered a first baseman. He also led that batch of players in WAR by a wide margin. His days of playing second base are likely over -- barring an emergency wherever he goes next. All of which makes him appear to fit back in the American League. He can be a designated hitter, occasionally play first, pinch-hit. This is a good time to note the Nationals do not play in the American League.

But, could he still fit back in Washington? In short, yes. His 2019 OPS was .930 against right-handed pitching (.758 career). If the Nationals are looking for a left-handed bat to pair with Ryan Zimmerman at first base, how many of those hit right-handed pitching better than Kendrick? Eric Thames last season against right-handers: .877 OPS. Mitch Moreland against right-handed pitching: .887 OPS. He plummets to .598 against lefties.

The recent elevation of Kendrick’s numbers against right-handed pitching present a challenge. Do the Nationals believe them to be repeatable, making a left-hand infield bench bat unnecessary? And, do they make paying Kendrick worth it?

The market may help them. As Kendrick mentioned during the season, he could well have begun the year without a job if he didn’t have a second season on his contract. League front office folks aren’t keen on 35-year-old hitters coming off Achilles tendon surgery. 

Kendrick rolled his eyes at those who doubted his return chances. He mentioned in the offseason he was on pace to be ready in spring training. When he arrived, he proved that to be true. The rest of the season just amplified how ready he indeed was.

Next season is what matters to him and the Nationals now. Kendrick mentioned rediscovering his joy for baseball when joining the Phillies then moving to Washington. He lost it when struggling in Los Angeles. So, is there another year together? Maybe two? Mike Rizzo doesn’t share his fellow general manager’s reluctance to hire 30-somethings. But, did they receive all the could from Kendrick, who made just $4 million last season? It's another offseason question to decide.


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Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Kurt Suzuki will turn 37 years old while in a major-league uniform if the Nationals play October baseball again this season. This is year 14 and the second stop with one of four teams he’s played for. Suzuki spent time in the American League,
 then the National League, then back to the AL before a return to the NL. He’s well-traveled.

Which makes the headlines cooking with his name all the stranger to him. Following comments to The Washington Post that the Houston Astros were using a whistling system to steal signs in the 2019 World Series, Suzuki’s name was hurled to the front of the cross-player sniping currently pervasive in Major League Baseball. Houston’s Carlos Correa transitioned to specifically talk about Suzuki on Saturday when he rumbled through a session with Astros writers. Sunday, Suzuki conducted his own group session, something he was partly in disbelief about, and something he doesn’t want to keep occurring. 

“Honestly, I’m too old to get in the middle,” Suzuki said. “I really don’t associate myself with this kind of stuff. I just kind of go about my business and try to stay out of everything and get ready to play baseball. That’s what it’s about -- playing baseball.”

Suzuki’s steady answers Sunday inside the Nationals’ clubhouse focused on two ideas: he’s enjoying the World Series and preparing for 2020. Suzuki stopped short of saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” but that was the general tenor after he politely agreed to talk with reporters despite being self-aware enough to realize the topic.

“I thought you guys were going to talk about the 1-for-20 in the World Series,” Suzuki joked.

He made the same joke with teammates before heading to meet the media. He was asked where that “one” landed.

“Train tracks.”

Suzuki joined Yan Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart, Davey Martinez and others in devising a multi-tiered system to protect signs against the Astros in the World Series. Suzuki did not say Sunday he knew the Astros were cheating in the World Series. 

“You hear stuff around the league,” Suzuki said. “All you do is you do your due diligence and you try to prepare yourself to not get into that situation. We just did our homework on our end and did everything we possibly can to combat the rumors going around and we just prepared ourselves. That was the bottom line: just getting ready for it if it did happen.”

His session of diffusement ended with a nod to Max Scherzer’s comments from when spring training began. Scherzer bounced back questions about the Astros by advising reporters to go talk to them. 

“That’s their situation,” Suzuki said. “I think Scherzer said it best. They are the ones that have to do the answering. We’re just getting ready for the 2020 season to defend the title. That’s it. We’re getting ready, enjoying our teammates, enjoying the World Series and getting ready for the season.”

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Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The double doors from the field into the Nationals clubhouse pushed open Saturday morning, and in strode Victor Robles.

He was dressed mostly in black, his preferred thin hoodie up over his head, big gold watch on his wrist, and general mojo bursting about. Robles made announcements in Spanish and English. He provided hugs for most. Not long after walking in, he ended up in one of his common reclining positions, this one inside a mobile laundry basket, folded like an overgrown kid in a shopping cart. Robles laying on the floor with his legs on a folding chair while burning through his phone will come later.

The clubhouse was sparsely populated upon his arrival Saturday. He ventured down the freshly-painted hall and ended up in the manager’s office, previously existing as a serene setting. Music drifted out of the open door. A green candle passively burned. Davey Martinez, once again able to drink coffee thanks to a clean bill of health, was doing some reading.

“He just came in really loud,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m not supposed to see you until Monday. Come back Monday.’”

And an addition: “I love him.”

Robles was the Saturday jolt in West Palm Beach on an otherwise bleak day. Rain romped through in varied bursts. The workout was cut short, everyone packed and Washington’s side of the spring training complex receded peacefully into the afternoon after the pitchers threw. Meanwhile, their fellow residents at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches continued to tussle with the world at large.

Amid the rain, Robles wandered out to the batting cages with two bats in hand and wearing a T-shirt he manually removed the sleeves from. One of the questions -- of the few in what is a stable camp with limited open spots and decisions -- is what kind of growth will come from Robles.

Will he step forward on offense, helping to mitigate the offensive production loss from Anthony Rendon’s departure? Will he move up in the lineup if he’s more disciplined at the plate? Where is his offensive ceiling a year after he became a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

The defense is there. Robles pushed aside much of the rawness he dealt with early in the season to become one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. His lack of experience coupled with determination to run into anything in his way caused specific concern among the Nationals’ coaching staff when the team went to Wrigley Field for the first time. The message to Robles about playing in Wrigley? “The wall is brick. You will lose.”

But, this is how Robles does things; he's living an upbeat baseball life destined to crash into the ground, a pitch, the middle of chaos. His approach also influences his plate performance. Robles swings often -- almost 49 percent of the time last season -- and is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 31.9 percent of the time. For a comparison point: Juan Soto left the zone on 23.4 percent of his swings and swings 40.8 percent of the time overall.

“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him -- we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”

Robles stole 28 bases last season despite a walk percentage of 5.7 and on-base percentage of just .326. He struck out almost four times as much as he walked.

So, the room for growth exists. The need for improvement also exists because Rendon left and the gap needs to be closed somewhere. How Robles will get there is among the spring training questions. Whether he will be heard from is not.

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