Looking at Howie Kendrick’s performance record, it seems odd that he has only played two full seasons. Those two seasons — his two most recent campaigns — paint a starkly different picture. If Kendrick performs the way he did last year for the foreseeable future then the Angels scored big by extending his contract before he reaches free agency, but even a baseline Kendrick performance will make this contract a good one.
The contract will cover Kendrick’s last year of arbitration eligibility and then his first three seasons of free agency. As a result, it’s likely that his 2012 salary will be kept similar to what he was likely to earn through the arbitration process, which was just north of $5 million. If that is true, the average annual value of the free-agent years of the deal would be approximately $9.5 million. That deal puts him in line with the recent extension signed by Rickie Weeks, though it comes in south of Dan Uggla’s extension.
The Weeks extension makes for a good comparison. Pre-2011 Weeks and Kendrick make for a good comp:
Both were entering their final years of arbitration eligibility, and both were coming off of career years in terms of WAR. Weeks has been the better player offensively, while Kendrick is clearly superior with the leather. In the end, it comes out in the wash, with the two being nearly identical, though Kendrick also scores some points for consistency — he has never had a season in which he was worth less than 1.9 WAR, while Weeks had three such campaigns during the same timeframe.
While Kendrick doesn’t have Weeks’ track record offensively, he did put together his best offensive season ever in 2011. While his strikeout rate did jump, his swing percentages were not that different from previous years, so that could be a one-year blip. What was different was the power stroke — Kendrick posted career-best slugging and isolated power numbers, as well as a career-best line drive percentage. He still hit just as many singles and triples, but some of his doubles power turned into home-run power, a welcome change. It’s a change that actually started to take shape last season, though it didn’t show up in his numbers:
This chart, from Jeff Zimmerman’s data over at baseballheatmaps.com, shows Kendrick’s average batted ball distance on fly balls that would normally be hit to the outfield (defined specifically — home runs, fly balls, pop-ups and line drives that travelled at least 150 feet and were hit in fair territory) from 2007-2011, with each block of dots representing one year. As you can see, his average batted ball distance started to go up in 2010, and given the two year uptick, there is reason to believe the newfound power is real improvement.
Of course, the danger with any extension is that the player will not maintain his current level of performance, and that has to be a concern with Kendrick, even given his better play offensively. But if he does regress, the Angels aren’t likely to feel too much of a sting. Even when he has only played half a season, Kendrick has been worth at least $7 million a season. That’s not a far cry from the $9.5 million he will presumably earn in his free-agent years, so it’s a good bet that this contract ends up being a good value for the Halos. But there’s another reason why the Angels and their fans shouldn’t fret one bit about this deal, and that is scarcity of available options.
Heading into 2013, there is a chance that Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips could all hit the open market, but given how frequently teams have been re-upping their second basemen before they hit free agency, I sincerely doubt more than one of them makes it to the open market. Take them away and there isn’t one second baseman in his prime that will be available. And even if Cano, Kinsler or Phillips all did hit the market, the Angels, given how much they have on the books already, would have been unlikely to swing one of those players at the premium needed to land them in free agency. In locking up Kendrick now, they not only kept continuity in their middle infield (something they will be able to solidify if they also lock up Erick Aybar, as has been rumored) but they saved themselves a potential headache next offseason.
Howie Kendrick is never going to be a superstar, but he has been solid throughout his career and was probably the Angels’ best hitter last year. Jerry Dipoto and co. were wise to lock him into a contract that is very similar to Weeks, with whom he compares favorably. His new deal should prove to be a good value, and if he can come close to replicating his offensive performance from last season — a performance that boosted his value to more than $26 million — the Angels could end up with a steal on their hands.