If he returns, how would Kendrick fit into Nats’ 2021 plans?

Our offseason player review series continues today with Howie Kendrick, who faces a big career decision after becoming a free agent Wednesday.

PLAYER REVIEW: HOWIE KENDRICK

Age on opening day 2021: 37

How acquired: Traded from Phillies for McKenzie Mills and international bonus slot money, July 2017

MLB service time: 14 years, 91 days

2020 salary: $4 million (prorated $1,481,481)

Contract status: Free agent after Nats declined $6.5 million mutual option (paid $2.25 million buyout)

2020 stats: 25 G, 100 PA, 91 AB, 11 R, 25 H, 4 2B, 0 3B, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 7 BB, 17 SO, .275 AVG, .320 OBP, .385 SLG, .705 OPS, 87 OPS+, 0 DRS (at 1B), -0.3 fWAR, -0.3 bWAR

Thumbnail image for Howie-Kendrick-Home-Run-Swing-White-Sidebar.jpgQuotable: “I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t really come up with anything. I love baseball. I love the game. That’s one of the toughest decisions you’re ever going to make. Being around these guys playing in D.C., it’s really been a dream come true. And what we accomplished last year, being able to become world champions, that’s something special. ... If this did end up being my last year, I can tell you I really don’t have any regrets.” - Kendrick, Sept. 26, on the possibility of retirement

2020 analysis: Kendrick knew his chances of repeating his remarkable 2019 season were slim. His primary goal entering 2020 was to stay healthy and remain productive, perhaps taking advantage of more time off by not playing every day. That proved a real challenge.

Though he missed much of summer training while waiting to be cleared to participate, it didn’t take long for Kendrick to get locked in at the plate. On Aug. 12, he was batting .341 with an .825 OPS, and even his outs were often lasers hit right at somebody. But as the month progressed and a struggling Nats lineup needed his production, Kendrick began to wear down.

He missed five games in mid-August with a tight hamstring, and upon returning had trouble maintaining his offensive production. Over his next 11 games, he hit .244 with a .695 OPS. By Sept. 6, he needed to rest his hamstring again. And though he tried to make it back by the end of the season, he never did, the risk of a more serious muscle tear not worth it as the team fell out of contention.

2021 outlook: Given his health and advancing age, the Nationals knew for some time they were going to decline their portion of the $6.5 million mutual option they had on Kendrick for 2021. The official transaction came Wednesday, one of four options the club declined on veteran players. That doesn’t, however, mean he couldn’t come back for another season at a reduced salary.

Kendrick admitted last month he initially intended to retire after the 2020 season. But his injury, the team’s performance and the oddity of a shortened season played without fans in attendance left him questioning that initial decision when he left D.C. and returned home to Arizona. He said he planned to first get his leg healthy, then consult with his family before making a decision. He didn’t seem to be leaning one way or the other at the time.

If Kendrick decides to return for another season, the Nationals will need to decide how much they still value him and how he would fit into their 2021 plans. A huge part of the equation will be the status of the designated hitter in the National League. If it’s back for another season, there’s more reason to believe Kendrick could have a role on the club. If not, the options begin to thin.

Kendrick probably isn’t going to play anything other than first base at this point. If Ryan Zimmerman, also now officially a free agent again, decides to return after opting out of the 2020 season, it’s tough to see the club proceeding with two right-handed, injury-prone, veteran first basemen (if the NL isn’t using a DH). The more likely scenario would have the club bringing back one of the two, then signing a left-handed complement to share the job.

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