It’s been more than six months since he ruptured his right Achilles tendon on a fluke play in left field at Nationals Park, and Howie Kendrick is just now starting to run on an anti-gravity treadmill.
That’s not necessarily cause for concern. Kendrick insisted he’s on schedule in his rehab program from the major injury. His foot feels normal, and he doesn’t find himself favoring or thinking about it when he goes through various motions.
But Kendrick also knows he still has several more significant mileposts to pass before he’s fully recovered and back playing alongside his Nationals teammates as he did pre-injury. And so he must continue to couch his expectations just a bit, even if he remains wholly optimistic about his chances of playing the entire 2019 season.
“Hopefully, I’m still on track for spring training,” he said Sunday at Winterfest. “I’m expecting to be ready for spring. I know things happen and I can say that, but something might happen. But if all things keep going the way they’re going right now, I should be ready for spring training.”
The Nationals sorely need Kendrick. And they sorely missed his presence for the final 4 1/2 months of the 2018 season, when the veteran utilityman was stuck watching games from his Arizona home and unable to help, on or off the field.
“It always sucks,” he said. “I watched pretty much every game. When you see little things that happen throughout the game and you want to talk to guys ...”
Kendrick’s voice trailed off before he shifted to talking about the positive things the Nationals did late during a disappointing season. It was clear, though, he felt like he could have had a positive impact on the team’s fortunes had he simply not hurt himself backtracking to catch what appeared to be a routine fly ball to deep left field on May 19 against the Dodgers.
What can legitimately be expected of a 35-year-old returning from a ruptured Achilles? The Nationals believe plenty.
General manager Mike Rizzo, who described Kendrick as “strong as a bull,” keeps insisting the club is comfortable heading to spring training with Kendrick and Wilmer Difo as its second basemen, downplaying the need to upgrade at that position.
“Howie’s a terrific second baseman,” Rizzo said. “We’ve just got to see how he comes back from the Achilles. We know he’s an elite hitter in the batter’s box and we’ll see how he moves around at second base.”
Kendrick, it should be noted, wasn’t regarded as an elite defensive second baseman pre-injury. In 33 games played there this season, his -4 Defensive Runs Saved rating was rather unimpressive. So it would make for quite a turnaround if he returns to above-average form in the field at his age and at this stage of his career.
Playing time in the outfield should be harder to come by, given Juan Soto’s emergence in left field and the logjam the organization has in center and right fields.
“I love the infield, but I know to help the team win you’ve got to do a lot more,” Kendrick said. “I’m not going to say: ‘I think I should be here.’ I’m not that type of person. I just play where they ask me to play. The most important thing is getting at-bats and trying to help the team win and just play solid defense wherever I’m at.”
If the Nationals have any reservations about Kendrick’s glove, they have far less about his bat. A career .291 hitter, he was batting .303 at the time of his injury. There’s no question he’ll be among the first players manager Davey Martinez summons off the bench for pinch-hitting situations.
Not that anyone truly knows yet that Kendrick will both be ready to participate fully in spring training from the outset and that he’ll pick up right where he left off as a hitter. It won’t be long, though, before everyone finds out for sure.
“I think February will tell me, when I get (to West Palm Beach),” he said. “But right now, everything’s been feeling good. I feel great. I feel like I could sprint now, but in reality, I’d be dumb to do that.”
Note: Nationals bench coach Chip Hale is expected to interview for the Orioles’ managerial opening sometime soon. Hale, who managed the Diamondbacks from 2015-16 and served as Davey Martinez’s closest dugout adviser this season, danced around the subject a bit Sunday when asked. But Hale made it clear he’s interested in getting another shot to manage a big league club.
“Let’s just put it this way: There’s 30 jobs, you know? And if you get the opportunity, it’s a blessing,” he said. “With all the turnover this year, I have not interviewed yet. I have a great job here. I love it. But if you get the opportunity to talk to somebody and meet some new people, it’d be a great opportunity. So that’s pretty much all I’ll say on that.”