Mid-season free agent pickups usually build their brand with a good team, then turn that into a huge payoff with another team the next year.
It has happened to the Nationals over the years. It happens to almost every team that surges for a playoff spot in hopes that late free agent acquisition will make the difference between almost reaching the playoffs to definitely playing October baseball.
But this offseason has been different for the Nats.
Reliever Brandon Kintzler and infielder/outfielder Howie Kendrick have returned to the Nats. Further, the biggest in-season power bat to move from the Cardinals to the Braves has signed with the Nats this offseason in Matt Adams. Adams has played in at least 108 games in four of his last five seasons.
The bullpen was considered a bit of a weakness on a very powerful Nats team to begin 2017. In the first two months, the bullpen was the weak link that was keeping the Nats from becoming that complete team to run away with the National League East.
President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo went out and figured out a way to get Kintzler, the Twins’ season leader in saves, to the Nats.
With Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, Kintzler became an important part of the lethal “Law Firm.” Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle wound up shutting down opponents in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Now all three are back for the 2018 season.
It’s not rent-a-player for Kendrick and Kintzler this season, it’s a full season.
Rizzo spoke highly of Kintzler and the possibility of getting the groundball pitcher back with the club at the recent Nats Winterfest.
“He’s an ultimate pro,” Rizzo said. “He fit into the clubhouse perfectly. He’s a guy who’s got a durable arm. Really, no situation fazes him. He’s a guy who came from very humble roots to the All-Star Game, which impresses me and makes me think there’s still a hunger there that he wants to get better and improve. I just like the way he goes after it. He has no fear and no situation is too big for him.”
The same thing goes for Kendrick, who came aboard mid-season last year and provided the Nats with a clutch bat and player that had experience defensively at both second base and left field.
Kendrick returned for a reported $7 million over two seasons. He took a significant pay cut from the $10 million he made last season to rejoin the Nats.
This seems unique to the recent history of the Nats with mid-season pickups in their walk years leaving as soon as the season is completed. That’s what one would expect. It’s not just the Nats. Any playoff-bound team buying a player for the stretch run usually expects that the pending free agent will be gone as soon as the season is over.
Not this time. Players like Kintzler and Kendrick recognized that the Nats have a very good team returning, one positioned to go for a third straight divisional crown and a World Series berth in 2018. The club came within a couple of runs of reaching the National League Championship Series.
Kendrick not only is a critical piece for the bench, but also could start a lot in April and May at second base if Daniel Murphy is not completely 100 percent healthy in his return from microfracture surgery.
And despite getting only two at-bats in the National League Division Series, Kendrick demonstrated that he can deliver big hits in clutch situations for the Nats. Having power bats like Kendrick and Adams coming off the bench is huge for this club in besting NL East opponents come 2018.
The bottom line is the perception of the Nats by free agents: Not only do they want to play for the club, but they want to return to the team after spending a few months on the team in a pennant race. Keeping the roster similar to the team that took the division last season only strengthens the Nats for 2018 because they get key players for 162 games instead of just 70.