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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