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Howie Kendrick is a perfect fit for the Tampa Bay Rays

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World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One of the earliest rumors of the offseason is the Tampa Bay Rays are interested in signing Howie Kendrick. The interest has led Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer to say, “a league source said it’s unlikely he signs with the Reds and the Tampa Bay Rays are the frontrunners to add him.”

Kendrick was one of the heros in the playoffs for the Washington Nationals. In the tenth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS Kendrick hit a grand slam to plate the series winning runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

At one time Kendrick was the everyday second baseman for the Los Angeles Angels. In 2015 he moved across town to the Dodgers where he had a solid two years as a most day starter. After the down 2016 at the plate Kendrick has been relegated to a bat first bench player for the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals.

In 2019 his 370 plate appearances was the most he’s managed over the last three years. After posting good 120 and 112 wRC+s in 2017 and 2018 respectively he put up his career best 146 wRC+ in 2019.

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

2019 Season

Kendrick was one of the best hitters in the major leagues by almost any metric in 2019. His 146 wRC+ ranked 12th, .400 wOBA ranked 10th, and .966 OPS ranks 12th in the major leagues for batters with 300+ plate appearances via FanGraphs.

It’s not common for a player to post their best offensive season at 36 years old.

The ball and inflated home run totals are part of the narrative of the 2019 season. Kendrick hitting 17 homers in a part time role makes you pause and think after not reaching double digits since 2013. He only bested 17 homers once in his career with 18 in 2011. That took an additional 213 plate appearances.

Kendrick’s .228 ISO is far higher than his .137 career rate, but over the last three years he’s posted .161, .171, and .228 ISO’s, so he has shown more power as he’s aged.

The biggest change though appears to come from his approach at the plate.

Kendrick’s walk rate indeed spiked to 7.3%, up from a career 5.4%, and 5.5% in his 2017-18 seasons. Walks increasing with a power spike isn’t all that uncommon.

What is uncommon is the power spike coming with a drastic cut in strikeouts. At 17.2%, Kendrick’s strikeout rate isn’t high, but that plummeted to a career low 13.2% in 2019.

If you are able to lower strikeouts without giving up too much in batted ball quality you can get better results through more balls in play — but that’s not always a given. Lowering strikeouts while improving batted ball quality is a surefire way to deserve better results.

And those results materialized beyond his slash line.

Of players with 250 plus plate appearances Kendrick’s 91.6 mph average exit velocity ranks 18th in the majors. That comes one spot behind Yandy Diaz (91.7 mph). This is up from the 88.2 mph average he posted in 2017-18.

Kendrick’s .405 wOBA according to BaseballSavant ranks 12th in the league just behind George Springer and ahead of Juan Soto.

Kendrick’s .418 xwOBA ranked fifth behind only Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, and Nelson Cruz.

Washington Nationals Victory Parade Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

What to expect in 2020?

By any of the metrics Kendrick was one of the best batters in the league in 2019 and deserved every bit of his success, if not more. He did this in a part time role.

The question becomes what do you expect of a hitter that turns 37 next year, and ultimately what would you pay for that production.

Steamer believes he’ll be better than he’s shown in his career, but much closer to his 2017-18 production level. Steamer projects a .299/.354/.478 line and 117 wRC+. Interestingly this is equivalent to Edwin Encarnacion’s 117 wRC+ projection, which comes on a .247/.344/.494 line.

Defensively he isn’t much of an asset at any one spot, but he can be placed most anywhere. Last year he played first base (336.0 innings), second base (165.2 innings), and third base (99.1 innings). He has also played some left field in 2016-18. He’s likely to be mostly a first base/designated hitter.

Over the last three years he has received 334, 160, and 370 plate appearances. Injuries have caused some of the drop of playing time especially in 2018. Due to his age he likely needs multiple days off a week, and would ideally get 300-400 plate appearances.

For the Rays his role would seem to be at first base against left handed pitchers, some time at designated hitter, and the occasional spot start at second base, third base, or in the corner outfield.

Due to his age he won’t require a long commitment and likely won’t need a commitment to everyday playing time. This is the perfect situation for the Rays who could use the veteran bat off the bench in their price range.

If 2019 is Kendrick reaching a new level offensively this could be a steal for the Rays, but even if he is mostly what he’s been that’s a solid complementary piece.