There’s no denying the Nationals sorely missed Howie Kendrick last season. The veteran utilityman was being counted on both for his performance on the field and his leadership off the field. Then, six weeks into the season, he ruptured his right Achilles tendon. Though he made occasional appearances in the clubhouse so team doctors could check on his progress, Kendrick was mostly a forgotten man the rest of the year.
So the Nationals are particularly excited about the prospect of having Kendrick back at full strength this season, recognizing his value to the club. The question is: What can they reasonably expect from a 35-year-old returning from a major injury?
The answer: No one can say for sure at this point, but the Nats have to be prepared for the possibility Kendrick is significantly diminished or perhaps can’t even play for part of the season.
Kendrick offered up an optimistic appraisal of his situation last month at Winterfest, saying he hadn’t experienced any setbacks to date, “and I don’t foresee any.”
Kendrick had only recently begun running on an anti-gravity treadmill, so he still had plenty of hurdles to cross before he could be deemed 100 percent healthy. But he also expressed confidence he’d be ready to answer the bell at the outset of spring training.
“Right now, I don’t see any limitations,” he said. “I can do what I can do. I think February will tell me, when I get there. But right now, everything’s been feeling good.”
Optimism is good, of course. But it must be tempered with a little dose of reality. The Nationals saw last spring how long it took Daniel Murphy to make a full recovery from microfracture surgery on his right knee and Adam Eaton to fully recover from a left ACL tear and ankle injury. It was midseason before either veteran could stay on the active roster.
Kendrick’s injury is entirely different, but Murphy and Eaton should serve as a harsh reminder of how long it can take to make it all the way back from major leg surgeries.
Achilles tendon ruptures aren’t all that common in baseball. Zach Britton, Jason Grilli and Joe Smith all recently suffered them, though all are pitchers. Ryan Howard infamously ruptured his Achilles making the final out of the 2011 National League Division Series; he wound up playing in only 71 games the following year and was never the same, hitting just .226 with a .719 OPS the rest of his career. (Yes, Howard also was an aging slugger who was probably going to regress even if he never got hurt.)
The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study in 2017 examining athletes’ performance following surgery for a ruptured Achilles tendon, and the results should make the Nationals cautious about Kendrick.
Of the 62 athletes from the four major sports leagues included in the study who had Achilles surgeries from 1989-2013, 19 were unable to return to play following those surgeries. The athletes who did make it back to action collectively played in fewer games and performed worse statistically in their first year back from surgery. Interestingly enough, they collectively returned to pre-surgery form in their second year back.
Kendrick, of course, will be one year removed from his surgery in May. So there are no guarantees he’s going to be the same player the Nationals had pre-injury in 2019.
On the bright side, the Nats have positioned themselves well to deal with Kendrick’s absence again, if it comes to that. They’re in the market for a starting second baseman, and several quality options remain available. They also have Wilmer Difo available now and top prospect Carter Kieboom knocking on the door. They have no shortage of outfielders, even if Bryce Harper signs elsewhere, so Kendrick’s absence wouldn’t have too negative an impact there.
All that said, the Nationals would love to have a healthy and productive Kendrick coming off the bench in 2019. He’s a career .291 hitter who has been even better since joining the Nats in July 2017, posting a .297/.337/.484 slash line in 92 games. He’s an ideal right-handed pinch-hitter and occasional starter at second base, first base or left field.
Can the Nationals count on Kendrick being able to hold that role the entire 2019 season? No. For now, they’ll continue to hope he’s ready when the time comes. Or, at worst, that he’s ready early enough in the season to make a positive difference.