|LOS ANGELES DODGERS|
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Signed 2B-R Howie Kendrick to a two-year contract worth $20 million. [1/30]
After 10 years with the Angels and Dodgers, Kendrick found the market for above-average second basemen burdened with qualifying offers wanting, and will return to the Dodgers on a two-year slip. (Privately, I have concerns that Kendrick is involved in some riff on the Eagles’ Hotel California, unable to leave the confines of SoCal save on road trips.)
Of course, this is excellent news for the big blue juggernaut, perhaps the first bit of it in a star-crossed offseason. The team added a bit of a wild card when they re-signed Chase Utley as the team’s likely second baseman. Utley is a borderline Hall of Famer, but suffered a full collapse in 2015 and his greatest contribution to the Dodgers was ruining Ruben Tejada’s leg during the playoffs. A healthy Utley (ha ha) is likely a wonderful ballplayer even at 37, but a healthy Utley isn’t exactly a given.
Enter Kendrick, the team’s new everyday option at second base (or maybe third!), whose steadiness is almost a given. He’s clockwork when it comes to WARP, delivering between 2.0 and 2.8 wins above a replacement player in seven out of his 10 big league seasons. (In the other three, he recorded 0.9, 1.0, and 3.4 WARP, hardly dramatic outliers.) Though his defense and overall offensive numbers have dipped a bit in the last couple of seasons, he’s merely keeping pace with the league-wide offensive trend, and still puts up roughly the same value that he did eight, four, and two seasons ago.
Much of Kendrick’s value comes from his offense, where he’s known for keeping up a great batting average (consistently beneath .300, but never far from that mark) and hitting the ball the other way. In days of yore—like 1997—he’d probably be lauded as a throwback, exactly the type of hitter you’d want batting second and capable of moving a runner over as easily as cracking a single or double. Unfortunately, in our post-Moneyball world, it’s a bit easier to ding him for his over-aggressive approach as well as the fact that going the other way so often probably robs him of a little power. Nonetheless, he’s a consistently above-average hitter (career TAv of .270) that can be relied upon to provide solid offense, put balls in play, and “make things happen.” It’s a small wonder that he didn’t end up with the Royals.
So in a league where most teams probably want to emulate the Royals’ success, if not their methodology, how did Kendrick end up back with the Dodgers? As briefly mentioned before, the market for aging middle infielders with qualifying offers wasn’t quite as robust as perhaps players and their agents would have liked. It’s easy to imagine that Kendrick regrets not accepting a qualifying offer that would have paid him only slightly less than this deal for just one year of work.
While not financially ideal for the Dodgers’ new/old second baseman, I’d guess the Dodgers are pretty pleased with this outcome. Why wouldn’t they be? This is a very new-Dodgers move: spending a relatively small amount of cash on a depth acquisition, a move that virtually no other team might make with several average-to-good in-house options already in place. With Chase Utley and Enrique Hernandez in the fold, the Dodgers didn’t technically need Kendrick. But in the both absence of an elite player at second base, and in the absence of certainty at third base, what the team needs is consistent, positive production from these areas. Howie Kendrick certainly can provide that—it’s basically his calling card.
With this move the Dodgers can, in theory, return Enrique Hernandez to his Brock Holt-esque super-sub role, filling in for Kendrick, Turner or Utley, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager. The deepest team in baseball, the Dodgers have no hole that can’t be filled by an average-or-better replacement, so long as Chase Utley rebounds just a bit from last year’s debacle. Either Kendrick or Utley can take extra reps at third base to hedge against Turner’s recovery from microfracture surgery, and the other can man second most regularly. If Utley’s healthy, he may still be the best defensive second baseman of the bunch, but if his knees are balky, then Kendrick is perfectly adequate up the middle.
It is decidedly odd to see the richest team in baseball eschew adding superstars (or at least Justin Upton) in favor of loading their roster with depth options in the middle infield and starting rotation, but here we are. I think many people expected the Dodgers to throw their weight around in free agency—by all reports they made overtures to players like Zack Greinke, but weren’t high bidders—or deal from their stock of high-end prospects in order to add star power to their roster. Instead, they made another move that Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi might have made with their previous low-budget teams: add a good but not great player at a below-market rate, despite not having a pressing need for someone at the position.
Personally, I think that this gambit is a wise one, as relying on Chase Utley (who is fighting Father Time) and Justin Turner (who is fighting surgery) could make a team looking to compete in the newly top-heavy NL West a bit itchy. Howie Kendrick provides the Dodgers with his trademark stability and gives the team a contact hitter to balance out the power-and-walks approach of guys like Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, and perhaps Yasiel Puig. They say money can’t buy happiness, and that’s true: the Dodgers can’t really be happy with the way this offseason has gone. But it can buy you a new starting second baseman and, in turn, the best bench in baseball. —Bryan Grosnick
Although it’s a bit unorthodox to suggest that a player’s fantasy value decreases by re-signing with his old club, the Dodgers project to make life difficult for owners in 2016. Kendrick joins one of the deepest rosters in baseball. He’ll be the everyday starter at second base; however, it’s clear that Los Angeles wants to give Chase Utley playing time at the position, too. The fact that Kendrick has already told the media that he’s willing to play some third base should shine some hope on the playing time worry. On the brighter side, the 32-year-old lacks any significant platoon issue—which should keep him away from a strict platoon—and he was already a top-15 second baseman with only 495 plate appearances in 2015. One can also make the argument that the Dodgers’ offense helps Kendrick’s overall fantasy value; I’m just not convinced it’s enough to overcome a true everyday role elsewhere, especially if it would’ve been somewhere more batter-friendly, such as Arizona. Compared to what Kendrick’s value was thought to be post-LA, his trend arrow is pointing downward. —J.P. Breen