Kendrick will turn 37 in July. He has a lengthy injury history that includes tearing his right Achilles’ tendon with the Nationals in 2018, and he had a series of hamstring issues this past spring. But the Nationals worked around his age and body by limiting his playing time throughout the season. That kept him fresh into the fall and during the Nationals’ World Series run while also helping him have a career year. Kendrick hit .344 with 17 home runs in 370 plate appearances, splitting time among first base, second and even third while Anthony Rendon dealt with an elbow bruise in April and May.
Then Kendrick used October to carve his name into Washington baseball history. His grand slam in Game 5 of the National League Division Series pushed the Nationals past the Los Angeles Dodgers and deeper into the postseason than they had ever played. He was named MVP of the NL Championship Series, hitting .333 with four doubles and four RBI in a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. And he capped the run by blasting the go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the World Series against the Houston Astros.
Now he returns to help Washington fill out its bench and situation at first base. Heading into the offseason, it seemed likely that Kendrick would land with an American League team and be a designated hitter for the rest of his career. And since designated hitters play most days, unlike his potential role with the Nationals, it seemed likely that an AL team would drive his price beyond what Washington was willing to spend. But Kendrick chose the Nationals’ offer over other two-year deals, according to a person with knowledge of his free agency, with his mind set on coming back to the team he helped lead to its first championship.
It is important for the Nationals that Kendrick can fit at first and second base, because second is a spot they still have to fill for next season. Top prospect Carter Kieboom could get a chance to play there every day, and it would make sense to have Kendrick, whose defense waned toward the end of last season and during the playoffs, as veteran insurance behind him. Kendrick otherwise fits into a first base plan that remains incomplete.
The Nationals used a mix of Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams last season, and all three became free agents this offseason. Washington is seeking an additional first baseman, knowing Kendrick’s workload should be level with, or maybe even less than, what he was given in 2019. Zimmerman recently said he will either play for Washington in 2020 or retire. That willingness to take a short deal and stay home makes him a logical option alongside Kendrick.
But the Nationals’ typical configuration has paired right- and left-handed hitters at first base. That was the thinking with Zimmerman and the left-handed Adams in the past two seasons. The team could deviate from that given Kendrick’s reverse splits in 2019 — a .930 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against righties — making him a logical choice to start against right-handed pitchers. Yet if a powerful lefty is desired, and the spot to squeeze one in is at first base, Zimmerman could be cut from the equation.
That also depends on how the Nationals plan to lay out their bench. Last season, a typical five-man bench included Kendrick, a backup first baseman, a backup catcher, an extra infielder and a fourth outfielder. Kendrick floated outside of a set position and wasn’t the utility infielder or backup first baseman, so there was a spot to carry whoever wasn’t playing between Zimmerman and Adams. But if Kendrick is now seen as a regular first baseman, despite the chance that he also moonlights at second, there will be a bit of a shake-up, and Zimmerman could again come out on the wrong side.
The Nationals’ two moves this offseason have brought back members of their championship-winning team. Catcher Yan Gomes signed a two-year, $10 million deal in late November. Kendrick followed by committing for another go-round. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and Rendon remain free agents; there could be new, gaping holes depending on where they land; and the Nationals have additional needs in the infield and bullpen. But the roster is inching into shape.
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