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Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Updated: February 18, 11:32 AM ET
30 Questions: Can Kendrick be healthy and productive?

By Jason Grey
ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Can Howie Kendrick stay healthy and be productive?

I realize I'll be in the minority when I give a substantial number of at-bats to Howie Kendrick this season. I was the one responsible for doing Kendrick's write-up and projection for this season's draft kit, and needless to say, the end result on the site is not what I originally put forth.

When we had our fantasy meetings to discuss preseason rankings, I was overruled on a 500-plus at-bat projection (502 to be exact, and I actually considered higher) for Kendrick, a total that was lowered to 455. I tried to defend the 500 number to the point where it became a running joke of the meeting. Each time Kendrick's name came up, I would increase his number of at-bats. "I just don't see that playing time for Maicer Izturis, because Kendrick is going to get 800 at-bats." Guess you had to be there. Brendan Roberts alluded to this when he reviewed the second-base position:

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Ah, Howie Kendrick. Our own Jason Grey, whose work I truly respect and appreciate, originally projected 500 at-bats and a .315 average for Kendrick, and he was chastised a bit for it in our rankings summit. I was in the "chastising" group, more for the at-bats, because Kendrick seems to have a knack for suffering freakish injuries. But I also understand where Jason is coming from, and I must admit it made me think about how much potential Kendrick has. I'm falling more in line with Jason's thinking by the day."

It's a groundswell! Welcome aboard, Brendan. We have T-shirts and a secret handshake.

Despite the eventual downgrade of Kendrick at the rankings meeting, it didn't change my profile of him, which said the following:

"The question with Kendrick is not whether he can hit. The question is whether he can stay healthy. Last year he went on the disabled list twice with hamstring injuries, after a 2007 campaign that also saw two DL stints. All the missed time has caused his development to stagnate slightly, but there is reason to expect his bad luck won't continue, and the skills are there to challenge for a batting title. He can get the bat on the ball consistently, although he's not the most patient. He gets a little overanxious at times, but his quick wrists, bat speed and bat control will keep the batting average strong. He's become more of a ground-ball hitter, limiting his power, but the ability to post a high-teens stolen-base total for his fantasy owners will compensate for it. With 500 at-bats this year, there's a good chance of a breakout season."

I've said many times before that I think Kendrick is a future batting champion. My affection for Hittin' Howie is well documented. He hits well against both lefties and righties. He has a career .306 average in almost 1,000 big league at-bats and a .360 mark, with a .571 slugging percentage, in more than 1,500 minor league ones. His bat speed and ability to hit the ball with authority will make up a bit for the lack of loft in his swing and allow him to drive some balls out. You could make a case that his development, especially in hitting for power, has stagnated a bit because of the injuries he has sustained.

Howie Kendrick
Howie Kendrick's 92 games and 340 at-bats in 2008 were career bests.
Of course, the injuries are the real trick, aren't they? But is what Brendan termed a "knack" for freakish injuries nothing more than some poor luck that may or may not continue?

Last year's lingering hamstring injury is certainly cause for concern, especially with a player whose speed and stolen-base potential are a good component of his fantasy value. He had a number of stops and starts in his rehab trying to push things too quickly to come back, and you definitely could make the case it really wasn't 100 percent when he returned the first time. But he's had an offseason of rest, so we shouldn't assume it'll be a problem this season. Players get hamstring injuries one year and can come back fine the next with no further problems.

The two DL stints in 2007 were because of finger injuries. He had separate fractures of the index and middle fingers, caused by being hit by a pitch and getting grazed by another while swinging. Freakish injuries, to be sure, but not necessarily a pattern starting to form.

Has he had some bad luck the past two seasons? Yes. Does that mean any of his issues are chronic, and that we should severely downgrade his future playing time? Not necessarily, especially because he played in full campaigns in the two seasons prior.

Here's the thing. Kendrick doesn't walk much, and based on his place in the lineup, a fully healthy Kendrick likely would top 600 at-bats playing in 150 games this season. Projecting him for 500 at-bats still would allow him some time off for an injury here or there. It's not as if I am giving Kendrick the most optimistic projection I could. But even with just 500 at-bats, which are more than most would give him, I view Kendrick as a .300 hitter who still can reach double-digit totals in homers and steals. He'll be undervalued in many leagues because risk-averse owners will be gun-shy about his health history, but I think that just creates an opportunity for a savvy owner to take advantage of.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.