Nationals have a decision to make in left field, and Howie Kendrick isn’t making it easy

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2017/09/13/na
BYBy Jorge Castillo
September 13
Howie Kendrick hasn’t stopped hitting since joining the Nationals. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Howie Kendrick hasn’t stopped hitting since joining the Nationals. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

About a month ago, a reporter prefaced a long-winded question to Nationals Manager Dusty Baker with the assumption that the Nationals acquired Howie Kendrick to bolster their bench. Baker cut the reporter off to question the assumption.

“Who said that?” Baker asked.

Turns out, his boss did. The day after trading for Kendrick, General Manager Mike Rizzo said Kendrick “strengthens our bench, strengthens our presence specifically against left-handed pitching.” The versatile Kendrick was effectively replacing Chris Heisey on the bench while providing better insurance in case left fielder Jayson Werth, who was on the disabled list with a fractured foot since early June, suffered some sort of setback. The expectation remained, however, that Werth would return and reclaim his starting job.

Baker’s rebuttal came back when Kendrick, added in an under-the-radar trade with the Phillies on July 28, was off to a torrid start as a National while serving as Washington’s primary left fielder against right-handed starting pitching. A month later, Werth returned and is out with another injury, Kendrick hasn’t stopped raking, and Baker still is not ready to hand the job to Werth.

When asked Tuesday whether the 38-year-old Werth — franchise pillar and fan favorite since joining the Nationals in 2011 — has something to prove when he returns from the shoulder injury that has kept him out five straight games to solidify his spot in the starting lineup, Baker stopped short of saying no.

“It’s too early to tell,” Baker said. “I’ll figure it out. It depends on how Jayson’s doing. It’s a pretty nice bench. But Jayson has been our left fielder. Both of them have been through the wars so to speak. But to have Jayson and Lind or to have Kendrick and Lind, that’s a pretty good left-right combination. And they played enough to feel like a regular and not a substitute as far as time and at-bats, which I think is in their favor.”

The 34-year-old Kendrick made his third career start in right field Tuesday, going 1 for 3, but has made 23 starts of his 29 starts with the Nationals in left field. He is batting .323 with a .919 OPS in 38 games since joining the Nationals. Overall, he’s batting .332 with an .885 OPS in 77 games this season.

Werth, meanwhile, came back Aug. 28 after missing almost three months to go 2 for 4 with a mammoth home run. He then doubled in his second game two days later. He hasn’t had a hit since. Werth went 0 for 20 with two walks over his next six games before he was pulled from one last Wednesday because of a shoulder injury. He’s missed Washington’s last five games and said Tuesday he needs to start accumulating at-bats “soon” to feel comfortable going into the playoffs.

Baker said Werth is day-to-day. The Nationals want to be cautious. At the same time, Werth, who’s played in 55 of Washington’s 144 games, is running out of time to find his stroke. The Nationals could decide to give the starting job to Werth regardless. He’s a clubhouse leader and playoff hero around these parts, and the Nationals could determine Kendrick’s positional versatility is better suited for the bench.

If Bryce Harper, who’s expected to return this season, doesn’t return, there will be room for both Werth and Kendrick in the starting nine in the playoffs. But if not, the Nationals will have a choice to make each night.

More on the Nationals:

The Nationals should forget about catching the Dodgers and plan for the postseason

Are Nats Park crowds lame? Two Post columnists discuss

Nationals release 2018 schedule, featuring more off-days

Nationals clinched NL East in a building three-quarters full — or one quarter empty

Victor Robles is already showing why he’s one of baseball’s top prospects

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