The Washington Nationals continued the systematic reconstruction of their bench Monday, re-signing do-it-all man Howie Kendrick to a two-year deal worth $7 million, according to a person familiar with the situation. Kendrick joined the Nationals on a deadline deal last July and slid comfortably into their veteran clubhouse while hitting .293 with an .837 OPS in 52 games.
The signing, first reported by USA Today, continues the purposeful reconstruction of the Nationals’ bench, which lost veterans Stephen Drew, Adam Lind and (briefly) Kendrick to free agency. Kendrick will cost a few hundred thousand dollars less than big first baseman Matt Adams, whom the Nationals signed in late December to fill the backup first baseman’s role that Lind seized last year. Kendrick and Adams are former everyday players who can fill in regularly, and both will likely need to, given Daniel Murphy’s work-in-progress knee and Ryan Zimmerman’s limited workload. Both give the Nationals established pinch-hit options and round out a bench that would also include speedy Wilmer Difo, catcher Pedro Severino and perhaps Brian Goodwin if the season began today.
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in just less than a month and, after the Kendrick signing, the Nationals have addressed almost all of the needs they had entering this winter. They needed a big, left-handed first baseman-type, and got him. They needed a veteran utility-type, and brought back Kendrick to fill that role. They needed a top-tier reliever, and signed one in Brandon Kintzler. As the rest of the league waits around for a sluggish free agent market, the Nationals have made pointed strikes. They can now wait in the weeds to strike at a bargain or two, if the market creates them, knowing they have already solidified their bullpen and bench.
Ideally, they will still upgrade behind the plate. Likely, they will still hunt a fifth starter. They will also need to sign more relievers, something they often do late in the winter, hoping someone will rise out of a large spring training arms crop. Most of those things can happen late in the winter, particularly as the biggest-name free agents have yet to move.
But if the season started today, the Nationals would be no worse off than they were at the end of last season, with a nearly identical roster built on similarly structured units. They have less of a health risk in left field, where Jayson Werth battled injuries off and on during the past two seasons. They have more speed in the outfield with his replacement, Adam Eaton, complementing Michael A. Taylor and Bryce Harper. Their infield will be the same once Murphy returns. Their rotation, while in need of a fifth starter, needed one of those for most of last season after Joe Ross underwent Tommy John surgery.
In other words, the Nationals are back to where they started — a nearly 100-win team that came within outs of the National League Championship Series — and they have not broken the bank to get there. Their three biggest free agent signings of the winter — Kintzler, Kendrick and Adams — will cost them (outside incentives) a combined $12.5 million next year. Catcher Matt Wieters, for reference, will make $10.5 million in 2018.
Kendrick’s value lies in his all-around versatility, both at the plate and in the field. Kendrick can play either corner outfield spot without dramatics and is a steady infielder at any position but shortstop. He also has similar splits against lefties and righties, with a .777 OPS against lefties and a .745 OPS against righties.
In his previous position as bench coach with the Chicago Cubs, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was part of a coaching staff that rested regulars and preserved them for the stretch run. Given the relative weakness of the National League East, he has reason to believe the Nationals will be in a safe enough position to do the same thing this season, barring chaos. Now, in Kendrick and Adams and Difo and the rest, Martinez has everyday-capable pieces with which to spell his aging regulars, and in so doing preserve their health for when it matters most.
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