The first additions the Nationals made to the major league roster this offseason seem to be solid pickups. On Tuesday, they signed veteran third baseman Jeimer Candelario to a one-year, $5 million deal and added outfielder Stone Garrett on a league-minimum major league contract.
With his price tag and veteran experience, Candelario presumably will be the starting third baseman heading into spring training, while Garrett will compete for a spot on the roster as a depth piece.
Candelario figured to be a depth piece, as a switch-hitter who can play both third and first base, when the deal was first reported. But the Nats, in their current state, wouldn’t commit $5 million, plus another $1 million in incentives, to a potential backup in 2023.
That means Ildemaro Vargas becomes the versatile backup infielder, who can play all over the infield and maybe even the corner outfield spots in an emergency. Jake Alu, who was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from next week’s Rule 5 draft, will try to make the team out of spring training, but will likely start next season trying to build on his .323/.372/.553 slash line from this year at Triple-A Rochester.
So where does that leave Carter Kieboom?
He is a curious case this offseason, yet again. The unproven third baseman was thought to be in competition for the starting spot in spring training. Now it looks like he’ll have to seriously outperform Candelario to earn the job.
Third base wasn’t thought of as a top priority for the Nationals this offseason. It was assumed they would focus more on the starting rotation, first base, the corner outfield spots and designated hitter.
But it’s safe to assume that the Nationals weren’t comfortable going into spring training with a combination of Kieboom, Vargas and Alu at third base.
Part of that might be because Kieboom missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Nats expect him to be ready by spring training, but even though he’s not a pitcher, it’s still a major surgery to rebound from. And then he also has to get back into baseball shape, having not played in almost a calendar year.
Also, even if Kieboom reports to West Palm Beach fully healthy, it’s not like he has a long track record of success at the major league level.
The former first-round pick and top prospect in the organization has only played in 106 games across parts of three big league seasons. His career slash line is a paltry .197/.304/.285 with a .589 OPS, seven doubles, eight home runs, 31 RBIs and 46 walks to 111 strikeouts. Per FanGraphs, he has produced -2.1 WAR.
For comparison’s sake, Vargas has 0.4 WAR across parts of six seasons (including 1.3 in 53 games with the Nats this year) and Candelario has 8.4 WAR across parts of seven seasons.
Kieboom does have a much smaller sample size, but time is running out for the 25-year-old who was drafted all the way back in 2016. What will the Nationals do with him?
Do they wait to see if he proves to be a starter? Do they keep him around as a backup? Do they try to find a willing trade partner? Or do they simply cut ties with another former first-rounder when the time is right?
Mike Rizzo surely will be asked about Kieboom’s health and future at next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego. That is something to look out for. He might just give the company line that the young third baseman will have a chance to compete and remains a part of the team’s plans.
But the general manager’s first dip into free agency this offseason may suggest otherwise.