I'm fairly confident that last season wasn't fully complete when we began looking forward to 2016, identifying changes that needed to be made, and suggesting options for upgrades. James, in particular, wrote a sizable series looking at various ways to upgrade the team, following various models of teams that contended in 2015. In one of those articles, the suggestion of Howie Kendrick as a free agent signing to fix second base was brought up. There were, of course, several barriers to signing Kendrick. First, he received a qualifying offer, and therefore the Diamondbacks would forfeit their first round pick in order to sign him. Second, he's not young. He turns 33 next year, making him just one year younger than Aaron Hill (albeit with lower mileage.) Third, while solid offensively, Kendrick is several years removed from his best offensive season (2011) and has posted an OPS over .750 just once since then.
While signing Greinke meant that Kendrick would no longer require a first round selection in addition to whatever money he commands, the other problems are still very much in place, and it was a good thing that the Diamondbacks didn't rush to sign him. Now, however, that might be changing
The #Dbacks are active in trade talks trying to move a 2B, which could clear room to sign FA Howie Kendrick
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) January 21, 2016
Sure, consider the source. It's not like Nightengale is the most reliable source for Diamondbacks news, but it makes sense. There just aren't a lot of other options out there at present, and the Diamondbacks have multiple holes that still need filled, so if space (both salary space and roster space) can be cleared through a trade while filling another hole, and then Kendrick could be signed, that might wind up being a good deal. The question is, who would the Diamondbacks move to free up space? Who might they acquire? And would Kendrick really make that big of a difference, anyway?
Who could be moved?
The most obvious answer to this question, from the Diamondbacks' perspective, is Aaron Hill. He's set to make $12 million in 2016, and Kendrick would likely cost somewhere in that ballpark. But we have to face facts, and the likelihood of someone taking on Hill and all of his salary is somewhat akin to the likelihood of me winning the lottery without buying a ticket. The only way it happens is if the Diamondbacks take on a similarly undesirable salary or a problem player, which only helps the situation if that undesirable fills a position of need (which would likely be a corner-outfield spot or bullpen piece.) More likely, we see Chris Owings moved, which would be the definition of selling low. There's an outside chance Nick Ahmed could be moved, which would move Owings back to shortstop, but the net loss of defense (between Ahmed's A++ defense and Kendrick's C- defense) would probably mean that the middle infield would be worse in 2016 than it was in 2015. The remaining option would be to package a prospect with Hill in order to deal him; needless to say we don't want that to happen, but it might be required if the team is set on moving Hill.
Who could the Diamondbacks acquire?
The short answer would be "no one we would want, most likely." In a trade like this, you are basically looking at two kinds of returns. You either get the bad contract of the washed up player and hope that he turns it around in a new location (the Diamondbacks have successfully done this before, in acquiring Aaron Hill from the Blue Jays along with John McDonald for Kelly Johnson. That exchange of "bad" contracts worked in Arizona's favor, until they rewarded Hill with a mammoth contract, forgetting how dismal he was in Toronto in 2010 and 2011.) Or you get the clubhouse cancer, that another team just can't wait to be rid of. That rarely works out. By packaging a prospect with Hill, you could get some salary relief (but with the spending the team has done already, can't they just bite the bullet and spend a little more?) or possibly a useful middle of the bullpen piece. Realistically, that's the best return you can hope for in a trade of Aaron Hill. Remember, when he was 29 and making less than half what he is now, he was packaged with John McDonald for Kelly Johnson.
Does it make a difference?
Based on last year's performance, it makes a difference, and not a small one. The Diamondbacks were the worst team in the NL at second base last year, and not by a small margin. Second base was worth -2.3 WAA for the D-backs. The Dodgers, on the other hand, were middle of the pack, with their second base position worth -0.1 WAA. But that was more despite Kendrick than because of Kendrick. He was worth -0.5 WAA, which would still represent an improvement at the position, but there are some very real concerns.
First, there is Kendrick's glove. While UZR likes him more than DRS, neither rate his glove as a positive. That shouldn't be too surprising; defense is typically the first to go. DRS has never particularly liked Kendrick's glove, but UZR had him as one of the top second basemen in 2011, and his decline from 2014 to 2015 was precipitous. That's a bit of a concern, but it could be argued that a lot of it was sharing the field with some really bad fielders in Los Angeles. Playing between Paul Goldschmidt and Nick Ahmed would certainly take that out of the equation. That said, UZR rated Chris Owings as worse at second base, so perhaps Kendrick's decline isn't really a concern.
Of greater concern is his bat. Kendrick has always been a bat-first player, and he'll get paid to be an above-average bat. If you look at his similarity scores, three names show up quite a bit: Placido Polanco, Omar Infante, and Aaron Hill. Out of those three, only Polanco has had a finished career. His age-31 season was also the best out of the three, and was in fact a career year. But he dropped off fairly quickly thereafter, posting an OPS+ over 100 only in his age 32 season, and slashing .284/.332/.370 for an OPS+ of 88 thereafter. Polanco was also better with the glove than is Kendrick. If you look at only the next three seasons (assuming Kendrick can be signed to a three year deal) the numbers are a bit better: .296/.340/.400 with an OPS+ of 95. As Polanco played in an era of offensive inflation, I'd hazard that OPS+ might be about the ceiling for Kendrick, but those unadjusted rate stats are going to be a good bit lower.
Do I need to detail the downfall of Infante or Hill? We complain about Hill, yet his OPS+ since turning 32 is 78, respectable compared to Infante's 64. (Come to think of it, the Royals might well agree to a Hill-Infante swap, but let's all hope that doesn't happen.) Kendrick has pretty much always been better with the bat than Infante, but still, that's the floor.
I anticipate Kendrick would command at least 3/$40 million, very possibly more. In the expansion era, a grand total of 31 second baseman have had at least one season with an OPS+ of 100 or higher from age 32-34. Only seven posted that number in all three seasons (Ian Kinsler has a chance to be the eighth next year.) Out of those seven, Joe Morgan is in the Hall of Fame, Lou Whitaker (and possibly Jeff Kent) should be, Bret Boone was likely juicing, and Ray Durham was injured nearly constantly. Basically, there's a chance of Kendrick posting that kind of offensive numbers, but the chances of his falling off a cliff are pretty good. His peak wasn't quite as high as Hill's peak, so if he were to fall the same distance, he could wind up worse offensively than Hill.
Finally, look at the On-Base percentage. Kendrick's career figure of .333 isn't terrible, but isn't exactly good, either. He surpassed that career figure a bit last year, at .336. Aaron Hill, through his age-31 season, had an OBP of .329. He's been sub-.300 the last couple of years, but showed some promise last year, bouncing back a bit (as far as getting on base was concerned) to post an OBP of .316 in the second half of last season.
Yes, Kendrick might help the team in the immediate. But since it would require a multiple-year commitment with very little chance of him maintaining production over the life of the contract, the team might be in better shape hoping that Hill (who is still superior to Kendrick defensively) can produce at his second-half levels last year (.256/.316/.383) and for Phil Gosselin and Chris Owings doing well in support of him. That would only require one year of over-paying Hill, and not (potentially) three or even four of overpaying Kendrick. Basically, I'd rather be patient at second base (knowing that there is always the potential to make a move at the deadline if the team is in contention) than throw money now at a player who has every chance of not being worth it next year, let alone down the road. The "competitive window" is supposed to be for the next three years. So I'd rather try to get a player who can contribute for all three, and Kendrick's chances of doing that are pretty small.