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May 05, 2017

Kendrick's injury still buying Aaron Altherr time – but what happens come mid-May?

Howie Kendrick “looked like an 18-year-old trying to make a team” during the Phillies week-long road trip through Los Angeles and Chicago, manager Pete Mackanin said.

The former All-Star second baseman bounced from the outfield to second, third and first, getting reps during pregame batting practice. Kendrick was one of the team’s most productive hitters when he was placed on the DL with a Grade 1 oblique strain 2 1/2 weeks ago and will be a welcome addition when he’s healthy enough to return to the lineup.

But now the panic is setting in with everyone wondering what is going to happen to Aaron Altherr when Kendrick returns, right?

Well, there’s a chance this conundrum will continue to work itself out. Although Kendrick appeared to be closing in on an imminent return this week, Mackanin said the 33-year-old veteran still “felt something” in his oblique this week and will need more time.

Prior to Friday’s game with the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park, general manager Matt Klentak said the best case scenario wouldn’t have Kendrick back in the Phillies lineup for a week to 10 days.

“We might see him on a rehab assignment middle to late next week,” Klentak said. “It could be as late as next weekend. … And (then) we’ll see how many at-bats he needs before he’s activated.”

Translation: the top hitter in the Phillies lineup, who broke camp as the team’s fourth outfielder and was still being called that by the manager less than two weeks ago, will continue to get an extended audition as a starter.

The 26-year-old Altherr has arguably been the team’s best all-around player in the season’s first month, or at least the second best behind Cesar Hernandez. Altherr, who was recently slotted third in Mackanin’s lineup, already has as many extra-base hits this season (10 in 68 plate appearances) as he had all of last season (227 plate appearances) when he missed the majority of the season’s first four months after undergoing wrist surgery.

Altherr has slashed .354/.436/.604 with two home runs, and six doubles (while striking out 15 times and walking six times) since Kendrick was placed on the DL. He’s also played Gold Glove-caliber defense in left field and swiped three bases in four tries, too. Among NL outfielders with at least 60 plate appearances, Altherr’s 1.012 OPS ranks fifth, behind only Bryce Harper (1.227), Eric Thames (1.184), Michael Conforto (1.127), and Matt Kemp (1.057).

Since Kendrick’s return is not imminent, Altherr will likely get another 10 games/35-ish plate appearances to continue to prove his worth.

If he slumps, Mackanin will still probably find a way to mix him into a lineup a few times a week with Kendrick and right fielder Michael Saunders. And if he continues to hit like one of the league’s top players?

“I'll always defer to Pete on the lineup construction, that’s Pete's role but having spoken with Pete … Pete’s priority is to put the best nine in the lineup, or best eight in the National League, that he can,” Klentak said. “If Aaron is giving us the best chance to win, I expect Aaron will continue to play. To have too many players playing well is a good problem to have.”

The Phillies added Kendrick (and his one-year, $10 million contract) in an effort to improve the offense in November. Two months later, they signed Saunders as a free agent (one-year, $9 million).

But those salaries won’t play a role in the team’s decision-making with their corner outfielders’ respective playing time. Regardless, there is still some time left for the situation to play out and, as Klentak mentioned, Kendrick has the flexibility of playing other positions (he started 32 games for the Dodgers last season at second, third and first).

“I don't think it's the contracts so much that will drive our decision making but the track records of those players,” Klentak said of Kendrick and Saunders. “Now that may have been what led to the contracts but it's the track records and the belief that Howie Kendrick has always been a good player and will likely continue to be a good player and the same with Michael Saunders. He's had a track record of performance, we believe he will show better than he has shown in the first month.

“I do not expect those guys will end up on the bench. In Howie's case, I think it's possible, and a lot of you have written this or speculated this, we could see Howie playing in a different position. I talked about this back in November when we acquired him, that was one of the reasons that Howie was an attractive target for us in the offseason was because of the versatility he provides is.

“He could spend a month as your everyday left fielder, then a month he could play first, he can play third, he could play left, he could play second, he could play a lot of different positions. So I think that's possible. But we're not going to discount the track record of our veteran players.”

If Altherr’s numbers take a nose dive in the next week, the decisions become easier. If he continues to be anywhere near as productive as he's been at the plate in the last three weeks while also providing stellar defense in the outfield, too, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where he is not starting the vast majority of games in one of the two corner outfield spots.

The good news for the Phillies’ decision-makers: Kendrick’s mini-setback has bought them a little more time.

“He looks fine,” Mackanin said, “but he still felt that and with that oblique, you have to be real careful. I'd hate to lose him for the rest of the season because he came back too soon.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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