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Howie Kendrick, healthy again, is like another new face for Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — List the Washington Nationals’ offseason additions to a coach or veteran and most will make a slight tweak to what they are hearing.

At some point — anywhere among Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and Matt Adams — they will suggest you are forgetting a name. They won’t consider that he wasn’t acquired in free agency or by trade. They will just remind you that Howie Kendrick is healthy.

“I could hit him anywhere in the lineup, play him at second, first, outfield, he was doing really well,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said, almost wistfully, of Kendrick in the first month and a half of last season. “But what people don’t realize is Howie in that clubhouse, he’s the constant.”

Now he’s back. Kendrick, 35, ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon in May and spent the next nine months rehabilitating. He spent his offseason in Arizona with a personal trainer, going from walking to running to, as of three weeks ago, sprinting and changing direction. He called his manager ahead of spring training and urged Martinez not to hold him back. He doubled down on that request when he stopped by Martinez’s office last week, walking without any trace of a limp and ready to show that, while the Nationals spent their winter plucking players off the free agent and trade markets, another key piece is back in the mix.

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There aren’t many do-it-all, late-career veterans who play four positions, mentor young guys and have hit .291 across 13 major league seasons. And however Kendrick performs in the final season of a two-year deal, he will provide a right-handed bat off the bench, depth at second base, depth at first base, depth in the corner outfield spots and an earnest, easygoing presence in the clubhouse. The Nationals believe that’s integral to their makeup.

“[Martinez] told me he’s going to keep an eye on me,” Kendrick said, “but as of right now, I’m going to go out with the team and do everything everyone else is doing.”

Aside from the Nationals modifying his running, Kendrick was a full participant in the first two days of team workouts in West Palm Beach. He has worked behind Dozier at second base, chasing down grounders and whipping the ball around the infield. He took live batting practice Wednesday. And he is expected to get scattered repetitions in the outfield in the coming weeks.

In November, Rizzo downplayed the Nationals’ need for a starting second baseman by expressing confidence in a platoon of Kendrick and Wilmer Difo. That could have been Rizzo’s way of deflecting his intent to wade into a second base market that included Dozier, DJ LeMahieu, Ian Kinsler, Jed Lowrie, Josh Harrison and Marwin Gonzalez, who remains unsigned. Or maybe it was true at the time and the Nationals had a plan for Kendrick and Difo before Dozier became a logical bargain on a one-year, $9 million contract.

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The signing of Dozier bumped Kendrick and Difo to the bench and again shifted Kendrick into a utility role. It’s what he would have done the bulk of last year for the Nationals with Daniel Murphy starting full-time at second after returning from an early-season injury. It’s a role that fits given his age and the many different ways he can be used.

“You know my role on this team hasn’t changed. I’m going to play everywhere like I did in the previous couple years, and you know I look at it like that,” Kendrick said. “The at-bats I get are the at-bats I get. I’m not here to complain about anything. I’m here to play baseball, try to help guys get better and try to win ballgames. At the end of the day I think that’s really important. As far as Dozier, he’s the second baseman. Guy can play.”

Working behind Dozier on Wednesday, Kendrick showed how far he has come since he was carted off the field in May. He darted to his left, lunged for a low-skipping grounder, pivoted on his left foot and fired a dart to shortstop Trea Turner at second. Next he ranged up the middle and, without breaking stride, redirected a ball with a flashy glove flip that shaved a second off the double play exchange.

The ball found Difo’s glove at second without Difo having to move it. There were light cheers from around the field as Kendrick, smiling, jogged back to take another.

“Whoa!” yelled Nationals bench coach Chip Hale, who smacked each grounder. “Atta boy, Howard!”

With defensive work winding down, Hale paused to look out at Kendrick and yelled, “Okay, Howard, what are you going to do this one?” Hale hit a slow chopper that forced Kendrick to sprint forward, scoop the ball with his chest parallel to the grass and submarine a throw to first base while on the move. That got more cheers from his teammates. Kendrick then lingered on the third base line, laughing with Anthony Rendon and Turner, before Hale came up behind him with an important piece of praise.

“Atta boy, Howard,” Hale, full of energy, said much quieter this time. “You look better every day.”

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