It wasn’t easy for Howie Kendrick to have to sit and watch his teammates play after he had an achilles injury in mid-May end what would have been his first full season in Washington, D.C. prematurely. Acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in July of 2017, Kendrick re-signed with the Nationals the next winter (on a 2-year/$7M deal) and he was off to a hot start (with a .303/.331/.474 line, 14 doubles and four homers in his 160 plate appearances) before the injury.
Then he had to go through a long rehab process while the Nationals, in their first year under manager Davey Martinez, struggled to get going all season, eventually settling for a second place finish in the division most preseason prognosticators believed they would win.
“It always sucks,” Kendrick said of being forced to watch when he spoke to reporters at the Nationals’ Winterfest celebration in December of 2018, “because I watched a lot — pretty much every game — and when you see little things happen throughout the game, and you want to talk to guys, and just little stuff, but I mean, we played well. We had some stretches where we played really well, I don’t ever want to discount that, there [were] a lot of great strides we made, a lot of the young players coming up playing well, and that’s going to play big for us this year and then during Spring we just try to fine-tune some of the things, and just get better as a team as a whole. I feel like we’re in a good spot, we have a great team, and I know [GM Mike] Rizzo and those guys are still going to try to make us even better.
“There’s still some moves out there to be made. I haven’t talked to anybody about any of that stuff, but you know I’m pretty sure they’re going to try to make us even better.”
Kendrick was keeping a close eye of the roster building Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office were doing this winter, and he liked what he saw.
“We’ve already picked up [Kyle] Barraclough, we’ve got [Trevor] Rosenthal, [Kurt] Suzuki and Yan Gomes, which are really good catchers,” he said at Winterfest.
“I played against Yan, I’ve played against Kurt, and me and Kurt actually came up playing against each other in the minor leagues when he was with Oakland.
“I know Kurt really well, he’s a really great dude, Yan Gomes, I mean, the guy is just, he’s a solid catcher, knows how to call a game, and he can catch and throw, so those are big pieces. You’ve got [Ryan] Zimmerman healthy this year coming into the season. [Anthony] Rendon is going to be out there. We’ve got a lot of pieces that are going to be ready to go right away, so I mean, I’m really looking forward to it this year.”
Kendrick had just started running at that point, in early December, but the Nats’ skipper said last week that the 13-year vet showed up at Spring Training in better shape than expected.
“The only guy I had a little concern with was Howie,” Martinez said when asked if there were any health issues once positions players reported.
‘And I spoke to him and he says he’s rip-raring to go. He’s been running sprints for about a month now, so he jokingly said, ‘Hey, don’t hold me back.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re kind of up there in age, so I don’t know if I’m holding you back, but I will take care of you.’ But he’s ready to go.”
“I think he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in,” Martinez said a few days in, providing the first ITBSOHL quote of the Spring in Nationals’ camp.
He also said Kendrick was serious about not holding being held back.
“He was very animated today when I talked him about him just getting going,” the second-year skipper explained, “... and he wants to be on the field, and he wants to be with the guys. He doesn’t want to be doing his own thing, and he made it very clear, so I said, ‘That’s great, but I’m definitely going to make sure that you have your days where we limit you and hold you back a little bit, because like I said, the biggest thing is to get you ready for March 28th.”
“He told me he’s going to keep an eye on me,” Kendrick said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, when the 35-year-old spoke to reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida upon arriving at Spring Training.
“But as of right now I’m going to go out with the team and do everything everyone else is doing,” he added.
“I think they are going to modify my running a little bit ... but as far as I’m concerned I’m able to do all baseball activities.”
“He’s been running,” Martinez explained last week.
“Like I said, he started running in January, and he’s actually sprinting. And he’s really, really lean, and he looks really good, and he said a lot of it was conditioning and the running portion, so he says he feels really good, he’s got no issues with his ankle, so we’ll just play it out and see where we’re at with him every day.”
Martinez was asked early in Spring Training what was missing with Kendrick unavailable for the majority of 2018.
“Well, obviously, when Howie was available and playing every day he was doing really well,” the manager said. “I could hit him anywhere in the lineup. Played him at second, at first, the outfield, he was doing really well. But what people don’t realize is that Howie in that clubhouse is the constant. He’s a guy where if he thinks something is not right or you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that, he’d be the guy to say, ‘Hey, let’s go. You’ve got to run the balls out. Let’s go.’ Or if he sees somebody down, he pats them on the back, ‘Hey, c’mon man, you’re alright, let’s go. We’ll get this done.’ But he was that constant guy. When he got hurt, you miss a guy like that being around, and he’s just a great guy to be around in general.
“He understands the game, and knows the game, if you watch him play he does the little things. He doesn’t pull the ball, per se, but he knows how to move guys over, he puts the ball in play with a guy on third base, all the little things you ask him to do he does it and does it well.”
Nationals fans will get a good opportunity to see Kendrick back in action since he’s set to start the Grapefruit League opener on Saturday night. Martinez said seeing how good the veteran infielder/outfielder looks so far convinced him to give Kendrick the opportunity.
“After talking to him during the winter and him telling me that he’s going to be ready, he’s going to be ready, and watching him — I watched him run the bases today. It was the first day we ran the bases, and, man, he was getting after it. There was no hesitation, there was no limping, he was in full force. And he made it a point to tell me again that he was ready, so I just said, ‘Hey, good, you’re playing second base Saturday,’ so he’s all excited about getting back on the field.”