Should the Phillies Upgrade Howie Kendrick?
When the Phillies traded for Howie Kendrick in November, everyone knew what the plan was: deal him at the trade deadline for something, anything really. In a lot of ways, the deal is reminiscent of the 2015 acquisition of Jeremy Hellickson. The Phillies gave up very little of value to the franchise to potentially get more value back a couple months down the road. Both Hellickson and Kendrick were coming off down years at the time and had a clear place to play for the Phillies, at least for the first half of the season.
With Hellickson, it seemed entirely likely that the Phillies would be abundantly ready to move on after half a season. With Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff already in the rotation and Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and, generously, Mark Appel all potential contributors by midseason, it was easy to envision a world in which Hellickson’s season-long presence would hold the rebuild back. Obviously, due to injuries to Eflin and Nola, that scenario didn’t materialize, but it was reasonable to assume his replacement would come internally.
With Kendrick, that scenario isn’t quite as clear. Currently, the only internal lock to be a major-league caliber starter in the outfield is Odubel Herrera. Aaron Altherr and Roman Quinn both come with some combination of injury and performance-based concerns about their long-term viability in the outfield. Even with Kendrick in the fold, both should get chances to play from the outset.
After that, they have Nick Williams set to repeat at AAA after a tumultuous season in which not only his strikeouts and plate approach remained questions, but he clashed with manager Dave Brundage over a perceived lack of hustle and saw more time on the bench than a prospect of his ilk typically does. Maybe Dusty Wathan–the new man in charge in Lehigh Valley–will be able to create an environment for Williams to thrive. Or maybe he won’t. Beyond Williams, there’s no one sniffing the majors worth banking on at this point.
That leaves a somewhat likely case where the Phillies don’t have a palatable replacement for Kendrick if and when the time comes to trade him at the deadline. He only has one more year remaining on his deal and, at 33-years old, is unlikely to play his way into being a qualifying offer candidate. That means that the Phillies won’t be able to play the game of chicken they did at the deadline with Hellickson. They’ll have to trade him for whatever they can get or keep him an get nothing. In other words, they’re going to trade him, and if two of Altherr, Quinn, Williams, and Tyler Goeddel aren’t playable major leaguers by mid-season, you’re looking at another August and September of a Jimmy Paredes type. No one wants that.
So, the Phillies should get that contingency plan in order now. They won’t and shouldn’t want to give up the draft pick required to sign Jose Bautista–presuming he’d sign with a non-contender anyway–but Michael Saunders would be a good alternative. After two injury-plagued seasons, Saunders played a full season and made his first All-Star team for the Blue Jays last season, hitting .253/.338/.478 (117 wRC+)with a career-best 24 home runs. Of course, that came with crazy mid-season splits, hitting 46 percent better than league average before the All-Star break and 31 percent worse after. Nevertheless, he’s entering his age-30 season, has been roughly league-average or better when healthy, and does not require the Phillies to surrender a draft pick to sign.
The elephant in the room then would be Howie Kendrick, who would be out of a starting role with Saunders, Herrera, and either Quinn or Altherr in the outfield. However, Kendrick played (in order of frequency) left field, second base, third base, and first base for the Dodgers last season. If the Phillies play him as a super-utility guy at those positions, they could conceivably get him three-to-four starts each week. That would be enough both to give him at bats to build any trade value and display him as a versatile player well-suited for a spot on a playoff roster somewhere else.
Further, there’s no reason to assume Saunders’ presence would block Quinn, Altherr, or Williams if they’re ready for a full-time role by mid-season. If Saunders remains healthy and plays at the level he has when healthy throughout his career, he could also be flipped at the deadline to make room.
Unlike this time last offseason, the Phillies have a full roster that looks suspiciously like a major league baseball team. That alone, however, doesn’t prevent them from getting creative and adding more to the mix, especially if it doesn’t interfere with the arc of their rebuild.