WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - There are certain points in a ballplayer’s career when priorities change. Early on, he simply wants to establish himself as big league regular. Then it’s about cashing in and setting himself and his family up financially for life.
And then, once all the rest has been accomplished, comes the final priority for a veteran who has enjoyed personal success but perhaps is lacking one major accomplishment on his resume: A shot at a ring.
Howie Kendrick has had a fine career in baseball. He established himself as an everyday second baseman for the Angels a decade ago. He twice cashed in with a $33.5 million extension with the Angels in 2012 and then a $20 million contract with the Dodgers in 2016.
But despite seven separate trips to the postseason, Kendrick has yet to find himself playing in late October. Which is why, after getting a taste of the possibilities in Washington during the second half of the 2017 season, he desperately wanted to re-sign with the Nationals this winter and make another run at that elusive ring before he runs out of time.
Even if it meant accepting a modest two-year, $7 million deal and (if everyone else is healthy) a spot on the bench, not the daily lineup.
“I’ve been an everyday player, went about my business and had fun playing the game,” he said. “Made the playoffs a lot. Had fun with the Angels, the Dodgers and coming over here last year. So it’s been really fun. And I look at it like, I don’t have too many more years left. So I want to enjoy it. ... I loved it here. So it was an easy decision for me.”
And an easy decision for the Nationals, who locked Kendrick up in January and ensured a potentially big hole in their roster would be filled by a player uniquely suited to help them.
“He was an important get for us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He was one of the guys we really identified as a guy that we really wanted and really needed. He just fit perfectly.”
Indeed, when the Nationals acquired Kendrick from the Phillies last July for minor league left-hander McKenzie Mills, he seemed like a perfect fit. At the time, the club needed a right-handed bat who could start in left field while Jayson Werth and others were on the disabled list but also play infield if needed and be comfortable pinch-hitting when not in the lineup.
Kendrick remains just as valuable now as he was last summer, though at the moment the Nationals need him more at second base while Daniel Murphy recovers from offseason knee surgery than in the outfield.
“When we were trying to find alternatives, there were alternatives but they weren’t as perfectly formed as Howie Kendrick was,” Rizzo said. “His skill-set. His ability to play every day and come off the bench. He can play multiple positions. And then you have the extra additive skill-set that he’s a leader in the clubhouse and really in the short stint here turned into one of the leaders here. That was just kind of icing on his performance skill-set. He was such a player that carries that kind of respect factor with him.”
Though Kendrick has played the majority of his games the last two years in the outfield, he is at heart a second baseman. And with Murphy still rehabbing, he’s been getting the vast majority of his reps so far this spring at second base, including a start in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener.
The 34-year-old still feels most comfortable when playing his natural position.
“I’ve been playing infield since I was 5 years old, so it’s something that it’s a little easier for me, more natural,” he said. “Going into the outfield, I have fun with it, but I want to be consistent and want to make the routine plays and just do my part out there. I know I transitioned to the outfield, so I’m not trying to be this superstar outfielder. I’m trying to be a routine player, making routine plays and do my job to help the team win.”
Kendrick’s calling card - let’s be honest here - has been and will continue to be at the plate. A career .291 hitter with a .334 on-base percentage, he was especially productive last season, batting .315 and reaching base at a .368 clip over 334 total plate appearances.
The Nationals knew Kendrick could hit when they picked him up. What they learned about him last summer and fall, though, was that he brought more to the table.
“He’s awesome,” new manager Davey Martinez said. “I can’t say enough about him. His leadership in the clubhouse, and the fact that he can do so many things and hit anywhere in the lineup and never complain ... it’s a good guy to have around. He’s going to help us win a lot of games. For sure.”
Which, as Kendrick himself pointed out, is the real priority at this stage of his career.