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Could Howie Kendrick Be Most Valuable Hitter For Los Angeles Angels In 2013?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

On a Los Angeles Angels lineup that features super sophomore Mike Trout, the one-two punch of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, as well as slugger Mark Trumbo, the mere thought that little ol’ Howie Kendrick could end up being the most important of them all sounds a little (or a lot) far-fetched, doesn’t it?

What if I told you that Kendrick was already more valuable than both Pujols and Hamilton in the last two seasons?

It feels weird to say, but that’s exactly what the baseball Swiss Army knife has been for the Angels, as his 8.6 fWAR between 2011 to 2012 trumps that of both Pujols (7.9) and Hamilton (8.0) during that span.

Not bad for a guy making less than $10 million over each of the next three seasons, right?

While some might consider the numbers to be an indictment of why statistics like wins above replacement aren’t up to snuff with traditional numbers like homers and RBIs, the fact is that Kendrick’s offensive versatility and defense means he’s capable of doing a little bit of everything that the team needs to succeed and without him, the lineup simply isn’t nearly as efficient.

That might be saying a lot for a player who only hit eight homers and stole 14 bases in 2012, but it was only this time last year when Kendrick was pegged to be the next breakout star, coming off a stellar 5.6 fWAR season in which he’d hit 18 homers and stole 14 bases, putting together a team-high 123 wRC+ and .802 OPS.

Even though the 2012 season didn’t exactly turn out like the Angels thought it would, you could say that Kendrick’s role is now more important than ever: yes, he’s going to be batting behind Trumbo, but he effectively represents the table-setter for the lower part of the batting order to sustain the team’s offense.

That means a whole lot of runs are going to be counted on Hendrick getting on base on a regular basis, and if Spring Training is any indication, he’s even prepared to go one step further and drive some of them in himself.

Through 66 at bats in spring, the second baseman has posted a .439/.456/.773 triple-slash, good for a team-leading (starters) 1.229 OPS. He’s showing the power that was expected of him in 2012, with four homers and 11 extra-base hits, both topping the team.

Now, considering that he also had a very good spring in 2012 (1.093 OPS), you might be weary about if that’ll actually translate into the regular season. however, considering his splits from when he was batting in a high-leverage position (.717 OPS at No. 2), as opposed to further down the order (.773 at No. 6, .816 at No. 7), you could make a case to say that perhaps his skill set was not properly utilized.

One only needs to look at Ian Desmond‘s breakout season in 2012 after being moved out of the top of the order to No. 5 to see what a change in roles could do for a player, and the very same upside is certainly there for Kendrick.

… and guess what? Desmond ended up being the most valuable position player on the Washington Nationals last season (5.0 fWAR).

So does it sound crazy that Kendrick can do the same? Well, maybe, considering what Trout is capable of. That said, just don’t be too surprised if, by the end of the season if he ends up being the most important No. 6 hitter in the American League.