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Nationals upgrade their bench, land Howie Kendrick from Phillies

The Nationals land Howie Kendrick, a proven hitter, from division rival Philadelphia for a low-level minor league pitcher. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The Washington Nationals made a somewhat unexpected deal to improve their bench late Friday night, acquiring infielder/outfielder Howie Kendrick from the Philadelphia Phillies for minor league lefty McKenzie Mills, who had just been promoted to Class A Potomac. The Nationals will also send international bonus pool space to the Phillies in the deal. The Phillies still owed Kendrick about a third of his $10 million salary and have sent enough cash the Nationals way to pay Kendrick’s salary down to league minimum, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Kendrick upgrades the Nationals’ right-handed hitting options off an increasingly decrepit bench decimated by injuries. Chris Heisey, batting just .162 in 79 plate appearances with a .485 OPS, is hurt. Ryan Raburn is hurt. Even if they weren’t, Kendrick would represent a major upgrade over both, a bench player with everyday experience who has a career .290 average against lefties and .292 against righties. The 34-year-old can play in the infield or outfield, and should be a key part of their bench even when everyone gets healthy. Kendrick was hit by a pitch in the hand on Wednesday, but was not expected to need a disabled list stint, according to reports from Philadelphia.

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When Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor, and Trea Turner return, the Nationals will have decisions to make. Heisey was their main right-handed hitter off the bench, a favorite of Manager Dusty Baker and a strong clubhouse presence. But when everyone returns, that bench will consist of Kendrick, Jose Lobaton, Adam Lind, Stephen Drew, and one other outfielder — potentially Heisey or Brian Goodwin. Either way, it will be a bench deep with experienced veterans, including Kendrick, who has more than 100 postseason plate appearances to his name.

The deal is somewhat unexpected. The Nationals made bullpen help their main deadline priority and seemed willing to wait out injuries to improve their bench. But in giving up Mills, who had 12 wins and a 3.01 ERA at Hagerstown before being promoted to Potomac this week, the Nationals signal a willingness to fortify their bench for a playoff run — and a belief that such a run will happen sooner than later. Kendrick is a free agent after this season, meaning he amounts to a rental, one the Nationals can rely on to spell infielders and outfielders alike.

In Mills, the Nationals cede an 18th-round pick who climbed the internal ranks with an impressive start to the 2017 season. The Nationals have made similar deals with the Phillies before, most notably the deal that brought them Jonathan Papelbon for right-hander Nick Pivetta, who had reached Class AA Harrisburg before the deal and has since made the big league club.

Kendrick is a career .290 hitter who is playing to an .851 OPS in 39 games for the Phillies this season. He has dealt with hamstring trouble this season, and was recently hit on the hand with a pitch that left his status in question. Kendrick spent the majority of his career with the Angels, including his all-star season in 2011, before moving to the Dodgers for two seasons, then the Phillies for part of this one. He went 3 for 10 against the Nationals in last year’s National League Division Series.

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