When Howie Kendrick‘s season ended on May 19th in the 8th inning with an achilles tendon injury, it has led to much doubt that the player who turns 36 next season can recover to be effective on defense. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had said that he was interested in bringing in another infielder with positional versatility, but then Mike Rizzo signed left-handed first baseman Matt Adams which has now left doubt in the direction Rizzo goes now.
“We feel good about where we’re at with second base,” Rizzo said. “Difo is a terrific defender at second base and at shortstop, which is very, very valuable. Howie’s a terrific second baseman. 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.”
During the GM Meetings in early November, Rizzo told the assembled media that he did not see upgrading at second base as a top priority this off-season — but priorities change.
Some notes from the GM meetings now that availability is wrapped up:
Mike Rizzo said the Nationals don’t see upgrading at second as a top priority this offseason. Right now he is comfortable with Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo in that spot.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) November 8, 2018
Rizzo could still pivot to look for a versatile second baseman who could fit into the current mix. The Nationals have been tied to Josh Harrison and DJ LeMahieu this off-season.
“We always like a big left-handed bat, but we’ll see where it takes us,” Rizzo said. “We could go a little bit different this year and go for a more versatile type of bench that could fill in different spots. But there’s a lot of different routes that we could do.”
Kendrick had been doing anti-gravity running and has moved to jogging at his home in Florida, but he is not going to be running at full speed for a while and won’t be doing baseball defensive activities until February. Kendrick batted .303/.331/.474/.805 with a 112 wRC+ in 40 games in 2018 until he suffered that season-ending injury.
“Right now I don’t see any limitations. I can do what I can do, but I think February will tell me when I get there,” Kendrick said. “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. I feel good. I feel like where we’re at right now is a really good spot.”
Is there a possibility that Mike Rizzo looks for a second baseman who could bat left-handed as a complement to Kendrick in a platoon and utilize Wilmer Difo in more of a utility spot? Rizzo also has two very promising top prospects, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia, who can play second base and shortstop as well as give the Nationals an option in the future at third base.
The list is still long for available second basemen (see chart below) after a few have come off the board. Names like Jed Lowrie, Marwin Gonzalez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Derek Dietrich top the list of free agents for the left-side with LeMahieu and Brian Dozier are the two right-handed free agent second basemen remaining.
On top of that, Joe Panik and Scooter Gennett are additional players who could be available for trade. Panik had a down year after suffering a strained thumb and then a pulled groin. Panik finished the season with a .639 OPS after he had a .764 OPS in April before the thumb injury which happened in a game against the Nats. For the New York native, he has hit 95 points higher in OPS in his career against right-handed pitching which could help the Nats after the departure of the left-handed Daniel Murphy and possibly Bryce Harper.
“I know what type of hitter I am,” Panik said after the season. “The numbers are what they are, but it’s not even close to where I want to be.”
The left-handed hitting Panik has been a Gold Glove and an All-Star who had a .768 OPS in 2017. Scooter Gennett was a first-time All-Star this year and is at the top of his game, but he is set to be a free agent after the 2019 season and due a hefty raise in his final year of arbitration. Panik is in his second year of arbitration and is under team control for 2019 and 2020. Neither Panik or Gennett would come cheap in a trade, but you never know what Mike Rizzo could pull-off.