Juan Soto turned the Nationals‘ desperation into genius Monday night, announcing himself with a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw in his first-ever start. No teenager had homered in the majors since 2012, when Bryce Harper did it. Soto does not need to be Harper to help these Nationals, scraping as they are for outfield depth.
Even if Soto provides Harperian production — a wholly unreasonable expectation — the Nationals will still need help. They have lost more than a handful of outfielders to injury, and are still waiting on some stars. Adam Eaton threw in the outfield Monday, 11 days after surgery and will probably be back in mid-June. Daniel Murphy is waiting out illness in Florida, but he will start playing in games soon. Supposedly, Brian Goodwin will begin to work his way back from a longer-than-expected wrist injury soon. When he does, Goodwin will likely reclaim his spot on the Nationals’ bench, too.
But the one player the Nationals don’t have waiting in the wings somewhere, the role they will have trouble filling, is the one vacated by veteran utility man Howie Kendrick, who is likely out for the season after tearing his right Achilles’ Saturday afternoon. Kendrick, 34, is a .291 career hitter who can play every infield position but shortstop and both corner outfield spots. He could provide a veteran, playoff-tested right-handed at-bat off the bench. He is a clubhouse leader well-regarded by his teammates. And he is costing the Nationals $7 million over two seasons.
Right-handed hitters with batting averages over .290 with at least 5,000 career at-bats are hard to come by. There are seven of them active, even if one uses “active” loosely: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, and Kendrick. Good luck finding a duplicate there. That list should demonstrate the relative rarity of Kendrick’s offensive skill set and versatility.
Baseball-Reference.com uses its own calculations to provide lists of close comparisons, and one list yields an active — and potentially available — player with a similar skill set: Marlins utility man Martin Prado. Prado is a point away from being the eighth member of that group. He is 34-year-old a .289 career right-handed hitter who can play everywhere but shortstop and help in the outfield, too. In other words, Prado is a near identical player, on paper, to Kendrick.
The difference, of course, is that Prado is owed $13.5 million this year and $15 million next year. Though the Marlins have expressed a willingness to trade key pieces, and a near-desperation to offload salary, the Nationals are already above the luxury tax threshold and probably will not want to take on quite so much money. Then again, they love Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, for whom Miami has been asking too much — as defined here by Soto or Victor Robles. But asking prices tend to drop when a trade partner is willing to take on salary. Now Prado meets a need. Might the Nationals budge?
No one affiliated with the team has suggested its stance has changed in the wake of the Kendrick injury. As generally happens this time of year — like, for example, when the Nationals traded for Kendrick in the first place — Rizzo will probably target a lower-cost veteran option that does not cost them an elite prospect. The trade market has hardly materialized in late May, when future sellers still think they might be buyers and annual buyers have not yet been convinced they need to sell.
Pirates do-it-all type Josh Harrison, for example, would seem like a good fit. He is also in the final year of a fairly expensive deal that includes 2019 and 2020 options. But the Pirates are exceeding expectations, fighting for position in the competitive National League Central. Why sell?
The Rangers, meanwhile, are reportedly seeking trades for several of their high price tag players. None of them, save that Adrian Beltre guy, can do anything near what Kendrick did — and Beltre lacks his versatility. Former phenom Jurickson Profar could intrigue the Nationals, but he has no track record of performance on any stage, let alone the big ones. The Orioles have Danny Valencia, but he can’t help much at second base and the Orioles do not trade with the Nationals. The Reds have Nationals-slayer Scooter Gennett, but he’s more of an infielder and has two years left on a team-friendly deal. The fits aren’t natural there, either.
Go through the teams that are decidedly out of it, and find few natural fits. Part of the scarcity is the pure dearth of players with Kendrick’s skill set. Part of the scarcity is the shortage of teams that are, beyond a doubt, out of the race.
But while Murphy’s return will solidify the everyday second base job, and Wilmer Difo can serve as a versatile and strong defensive option off the bench, and a talented group of outfielders will be competing for those spots before long, none of them are Kendrick. If everyone gets healthy — and this is a huge “if” — the Nationals could have a late-season bench including Matt Adams for pop from the left side, Mark Reynolds for pop from the right side, a backup catcher, Difo, and one of Soto, Goodwin, or perhaps even Robles in the fourth outfielder spot. That bench does not provide much defensive versatility, so the Nationals would likely have to carry two outfielders instead, meaning Difo would be the only backup infielder. The gift Kendrick provided was a player who could do both, giving ample options to a manager in Dave Martinez who loves creative maneuvers.
Perhaps they have enough veteran options to not need a Kendrick type. But as they build this team for a stretch run, and for big games late in the year and season, they will keep an eye out for the kind of veteran bench option he provided all the same. That option will be tough to find, just as the impact of losing Kendrick will be hard to measure.