When you thought of who would lead, or represent the Washington Nationals this season, Howie Kendrick likely didn’t pop into your head. He was coming off an injury-riddled 2018 campaign that saw his season end in May and isn’t viewed as a franchise player for the organization. On the contrary, he has been an irreplaceable player for the Nationals in 2019.
Yes, they’re 24-32 and have an enormous uphill climb ahead of them if they’re going to get in the thick of the National League playoff race. But the Nationals’ struggles, as a whole, have undermined Kendrick’s success.
The utility man was acquired by Washington before the 2017 Major League Baseball trade deadline and re-upped with them on a two-year, $7 million deal the ensuing offseason; he’s in the final year of that contract. Throughout his time in the nation’s capital, he has never been a consistent starter, mostly being plugged into the starting lineup when injuries presented themselves. This time around, Kendrick is making it virtually impossible to be removed from the team’s everyday order.
Kendrick is hitting .328, has totaled nine home runs, 33 RBIs, 43 hits, and just 23 strikeouts in 131 at-bats. The 35-year-old also has 12 multi-hit games, including two three-hit games in two of the Nationals’ last four contests. Meanwhile, he owns career-highs in slugging (.595), OPS (.962), exit velocity (91.6), barrel percentage (14.2), and hard-hit percentage (51.3) in the Statcast era (2015-present).The Nationals have been an underwhelming group as a whole, but Howie Kendrick -- and unheralded utility player -- has been a pleasant surprise in the nation's capitol. @RPStratakos has more.Click To Tweet
He’s making hard contact, driving balls through the hole, getting ahead of deliveries, hitting pitches outside the strike zone, and flat-out raking. He’s doing a little bit of everything at the plate, outside of drawing a great deal of walks. Kendrick has always been a contact hitter, but, from a production standpoint, he has amplified himself to an extent where you could argue that he has been the Nationals best position player.
Kendrick is doing this after missing the bulk of 2018, playing with an uncertain future, and having zero guarantee of being in the starting lineup on a daily basis. Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, and Matt Adams have all missed time this season due to injury which has resulted in Kendrick playing all around the diamond (first, second, and third base).
At full strength, Kendrick isn’t slated as a starter on the Nationals depth chart, and that’s greatly due to the presence of Brian Dozier, who the Nationals signed to a one-year, $9 million deal in the offseason. With that said, Dozier is hitting .209, striking out at a high rate, and whiffing badly at pitches. Now, Dozier gives the Nationals elite defense at the middle infield position which is what’s keeping him in the lineup. But if he continues to struggle mightily at the plate, the Nationals have to play Kendrick at second base when the team is fully healthy.
When it concerns money, Dozier is cashing in on some nice coin, but he and Kendrick are each free agents this year, so it’s not as if one is locked up long-term and inclined to play.
There have been few steady forces and positives for the Nationals in 2019; Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have been superb; Juan Soto is heating up at the plate; Max Scherzer has been stellar, but the Nationals have lost 10 of the 12 starts he has made; Rendon continues to hit at an elite level, but has an uncertain future with the organization, as the two sides can’t agree to a contract extension.
Throughout it all, there are people criticizing general manager Mike Rizzo for the team’s inept bullpen (which is last in the sport in ERA, opponent batting average, and, disturbingly, innings pitched), as well as Martinez for his managing of that unit and the job he has done in general. The latter may very well be jettisoned at year’s end if the Nationals miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
As far as Kendrick’s future, it’s anyone’s guess. The Nationals lineup is better with him present, but if they’re out of the playoff race and not going to make a late-season push, they could look to ship him to a contending team for a couple of prospects — especially if they’re not going to re-sign him in the offseason. For the meantime, Kendrick is the individual keeping their offense afloat.
Kendrick has been productive and reliable all season. He’s a generally forgotten 35-year-old who’s helping a team try to right the ship. The veteran chugging along and doing so emphatically is one of the most underrated stories of the 2019 baseball season.