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July 22, 2017

Phillies activate Howie Kendrick, but they might not be as under-the-gun to deal him as you'd think

If you’re looking for a reason to come to Citizens Bank Park during the final two months of a season that’s likely to end with the Phillies finishing with baseball’s worst record for the second time in three years, you might want to pick a date when Aaron Nola is scheduled to pitch.

Nola, who took the mound Friday on the second anniversary of his major league debut, has pitched like a first-round pick people can get excited about for two months now. He held the National League Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, a team with more home runs than any team in the NL, to one run in seven innings while striking out nine and walking two.

Nola hasn’t yielded more than two runs in any of his last six starts.

The right-hander, who turned 24 only six weeks ago, has a 2.42 ERA and a 3.78 K-to-BB ratio since the beginning of June. Nola entered Friday in select company: in the last month, only Clayton Kershaw had a better ERA among NL starters (min. 30 innings) and only Kershaw and Jacob deGrom had a better WHIP.

Nola is maybe the most talented and most obvious building block on the major league roster as the Phillies’ rebuild chugs forward. When he’s on as he was Friday, mixing in 95-MPH fastballs with knee-buckling hooks, he’s worth the price of admission at CBP.

While Nola racked up one scoreless inning after another on Friday, though, a player 10 years his senior patiently waited for his chance to pinch hit for the pitcher.

Howie Kendrick was activated from the disabled list (for the second time in the season’s first four months) prior to Friday’s game, but the veteran outfielder/infielder was not in the starting lineup. This despite Kendrick’s .349/.403/.476 slash line this season and a home run in Reading a night earlier in his one and only minor league rehab assignment after missing 3 1/2 weeks with a hamstring injury.

“Kendrick told me he played nine (innings) yesterday and is a little sore today so I'm giving him today off and he'll be back there tomorrow,” manager Pete Mackanin said Friday afternoon, a couple of hours after the team optioned Brock Stassi to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to make room for Kendrick.

While Kendrick waited for his first big league plate appearance in nearly a month on Friday, fans waited to see when he’ll be linked to a trade rumor.

The 34-year-old Kendrick arrived to the Phillies in November in a salary dump trade with the Dodgers. He was brought in to play left field and give the Phils a productive, proven veteran presence in their lineup. But Kendrick is a free agent at the end of the season, and like any one-year “rental” on a rebuilding team, also was brought in to be flipped to a contender in exchange for a prospect before the trade deadline.

All of this has led many to believe that Kendrick and the Phillies are on the clock and under the gun, with 10 days in 11 days (wait, make that nine in 10, since Kendrick was out of the lineup Friday) in order to showcase him for a trade deadline buyer.

But this isn’t exactly true. Kendrick can be traded at any point next month, too, provided he clears waivers.

And considering he’ll enter Aug. 1 with roughly $3.33 million remaining on his 2017 salary and has a couple of lengthy stays on the DL in the season’s first four months, he will absolutely clear waivers. The situation isn’t a whole lot different from the one the Phillies were in two years ago with Chase Utley, except Utley was actually on the DL on July 31 and wasn’t activated until Aug. 7.

Utley was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers (joining Kendrick, coincidentally), 12 days later.

“I’m not even really thinking about it,” said Kendrick, who did eventually get a pinch-hitting appearance, batting for Pat Neshek and collecting a single in the eighth inning of Friday's game. “All I’m thinking about is playing baseball. Whatever trade is going to happen is going to happen. I can’t control it, can’t worry about it, all I can do is go out and play baseball.”

Or he can wait to feel good enough to play baseball again, as he did on Friday.

And this is why it probably makes a lot more sense for Matt Klentak to ship Kendrick to a contender at some point in August. After playing in 146 games with the Dodgers last season, Kendrick had seen action in just 33 of the first 93 games on the Phillies schedule entering Friday, thanks to oblique and hamstring injuries.

Before the All-Star break, Klentak said he didn’t think the timing of returning from the DL would affect Kendrick’s attractiveness to contending teams seeking a versatile veteran hitter. And he’s correct in some respects: Kendrick has a 12-year track record of being a decent big league hitter (.291/.334/.419).

But the injuries – and not being 100 percent ready to go Friday, after he apparently told his team he was healthy enough to forgo any more rehab games – are at least mildly concerning. And you have to wonder if an 8-to-9 game audition would really change that.

A contending team looking for a bat (and someone who could start at second base or left field) might be better served by watching Kendrick play for a couple of weeks without any issues before surrendering a prospect in a trade. The Brewers (who have Jonathan Villar’s .631 OPS at second base) and Cleveland Indians (searching for a veteran bat) could be possible fits. And, with Aaron Altherr out for at least another couple of weeks, the Phillies can afford to give Kendrick the playing time and not feel like they're taking it away from a developing younger player.

Again, there’s no rush or clock clicking down to July 31.

And this raises another point, a fact you might want to prepare yourself for if you’re eager to see Klentak and Co. hold a mini-fire sale in the next 10 days: there’s a distinct possibility that the only player departing the Phillies clubhouse before the trade deadline arrives is the player who represented them in the All-Star Game 10 days ago, reliever Pat Neshek, who turns 37 in September.

Neshek, like Kendrick, is a free agent at season’s end. But he’s healthy and having one of the best years of his 11-year career and, thus, will have plenty of suitors as every contender is always looking for bullpen help.

Jeremy Hellickson and Joaquin Benoit, like Neshek and Kendrick, are also free agents at season’s end. But each has had mixed results and, with their respective salaries, they would also clear waivers next month.

The Phillies made two significant trades in each of the last two Augusts, trading Utley to the Dodgers in 2015 and Carlos Ruiz to the same team a year later. The non-water trade deadline could very well arrive a week from Monday with no one but Neshek on the move, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Phils are done dealing, either.

Until all of that plays out, at least you can watch Aaron Nola (who’s staying put, of course) continue to blossom into a pretty darn good major league starter as the Phillies play out the final 67 games of the 2017 season.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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