Howie Kendrick started running Monday, but not without help. He ran on an antigravity treadmill to lessen the weight on his right heel, where he tore his Achilles' tendon in May. As of now, Kendrick is the most promising candidate to start at second base for the Washington Nationals next year. After enduring the frustration that came with Daniel Murphy’s return from major surgery this past season, the idea that their second baseman cannot run without help in December certainly stirs some concerns.
“Howie’s a terrific second baseman,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve just got to see how he comes back from the Achilles'. We know he’s an elite hitter in the batter’s box, and we’ll see how he moves around at second base.”
Rizzo also pointed to Wilmer Difo’s “terrific defense” and to the “two studs” — Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia — who are looming as middle infield options in the minors. But if Kendrick is a question mark, can the Nationals begin spring training with no clear-cut, proven starter at second base?
Kendrick hopes he won’t be a question mark at all. He said he’ll know in February, but that doesn’t give the Nationals much time to plan around him.
“Hopefully I’m still on track for spring training. I’m expecting to be ready for spring,” he said. “I know things happen, and I can say that, but something might happen. But if all things keep going the way they’re going right now, I should be ready for spring training.”
When Kendrick is healthy, he is valuable. The 35-year-old is a .291 career hitter who could play second base, first base or even in the outfield before the Achilles' injury. If he needs time to build mobility, he is a valuable asset off the bench. But the Nationals have seen regular after regular struggle after having spring training truncated by injuries. If he is limited this spring, Washington will not be eager to push him as a regular starter in 2019.
“Right now, I don’t see any limitations. I can do what I can do,” Kendrick said. “But I think February will tell me, when I get there.”
Kieboom, who is 21, and Garcia, who is 18, spoke to reporters at their first-ever Nationals WinterFest this weekend. Kieboom reached Class AA last season, and Garcia was in Class A. Both are career shortstops. Both say they have worked at second base, though Kieboom has never played there regularly. But as Nationals coaches speak about the importance of improving the little things — more than one mentioned the importance of turning every double play at their disposal — the notion of relying on a rookie second baseman with little experience at the position seems counter to their 2019 priorities.
Difo could play every day, but he has not proved to be a consistent offensive producer. He hit .230 in 408 at-bats in 2018 and is a .250 career hitter. He can be a short-term solution, but in a lineup that might lack its most powerful offensive presence in Bryce Harper, the Nationals will have to decide whether they can afford to rely on Difo for a season’s worth of at-bats.
If Kendrick is healthy, they will not have to make that decision. But they might have to wait until February to know for sure.
Chip Hale to the Orioles?
On Saturday night, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that Nationals bench coach Chip Hale is a candidate to manage the Baltimore Orioles, who are searching for Buck Showalter’s replacement. On Sunday, Hale acknowledged that he hopes to manage again someday. He managed the Diamondbacks for two seasons before becoming Oakland’s third base coach, then joining the Nationals before this past season.
“There are only 30 of those jobs. When you get the opportunities, it’s a blessing,” Hale said. “ . . . I’ve not interviewed yet. I have a great job here. I love it. But you get the opportunity to talk to somebody, meet some new people.”