How Kieboom and Candelario news affects Nats at third base

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Today is an off-day for the Nationals, the last one until the team breaks camp and heads north for an exhibition game against the Yankees in D.C. on March 28 before Opening Day against the Braves two days later.

But enough news trickled out of the team’s side of the complex at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches yesterday to get us through today. And both of the major headlines affect the Nats at third base.

The first was the morning news that Carter Kieboom suffered a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The 25-year-old had just played in his first major league game in 17 months on Thursday as the designated hitter against the Marlins and now will be slowed down in camp.

“It started to flare up on me,” Kieboom said of his right shoulder tightness after Sunday’s game against the Astros. “And the last thing I want to do in this situation where I'm coming back is have something like this bother me and then you start kind of tweaking your own mechanics and start compensating for things. And that's what gets you in trouble again. So it's important to pay attention to these things. Whether it's an early onset of it, it's important to take care of it now that way it's a one-to-two-to-three-day thing versus a two-to-three-week thing. So we're on it very early and it's just something to stay on top of.

“It's important to have proper mechanics and with a healthy arm, I can have proper mechanics. It's something coming back from an elbow injury, you don't want a sore shoulder. You start dropping your arm and stuff like that. So I think we're on it very early and I feel very confident with it.”

The Nationals were hoping to get Kieboom to start playing third base in game-like scenarios in some sim games over the coming days. But that plan seems to be on hold for now as they try to loosen up his shoulder and strengthen his arm.

The good news is it’s not his elbow again and he seems confident it’s more of a day-to-day injury instead of a long-term one.

With Kieboom already not expected to take the field for a while, the Nats were already a little short-handed at third. And their depth at the hot corner took another hit yesterday when it was revealed Jeimer Candelario will be joining the Dominican Republic team for the upcoming World Baseball Classic as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s replacement.

While definitely tough from a depth point of view, this news is more celebratory as the Nationals have supported all their players who chose to represent their countries in the event.

“You wish you'd have the whole team together. But like I said, I tell these guys I would never hold you back to doing ... if they ask you to go represent your country, great,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But I get to see some of the young guys play a little bit more, which is also kind of nice. As long as these guys are going out there and playing and getting their at-bats, I'm fine with it. He's gonna play some first base, so I'm excited for him. He's excited to go play. So I said, go over there and knock the door down. I'll be watching.”

Candelario will be the fifth player to depart Nats spring training for the World Baseball Classic. Joey Meneses (Mexico), Eramso Ramirez (Nicaragua), Andres Machado (Venezuela) and Alberto Baldonado (Panama) are also joining their respective teams this week.

Paolo Espino was on Panama’s preliminary roster but opted out of the tournament, citing Taiwan, where his team is playing its first-round games, as too far causing him to miss too much of spring training where he is battling for a long-relief job.

That opens up a lot of playing time at third base over the next couple of weeks, again with no off-days. Kieboom may not return to the field sometime this week, and he will still have to ramp up his arm strength when he does, and Candelario could be away for the entire tournament, with the loaded Dominican team expected to make a deep run.

The Nationals still have veteran utility infielder Ildemaro Vargas, fast-rising prospect Jake Alu and non-roster invitee Leonel Valera who can fill in the void at third.

“We still got Vargas, who could play over there,” Martinez said. “I want to see Alu play over there a little bit. And we got Valera, he plays over there as well. So I get to see those guys play a little bit more. So that's good.”

Vargas was second on the team overall with 8 Defensive Runs Saved at third base last year. Alu led all minor leaguers, infielders and outfielders, with 17 Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2022. And Valera has caught the manager’s eye both at the plate and in the field so far in camp.

The Nationals also have waiver claim Jeter Downs and non-roster invite Michael Chavis to backup third. But Downs, a former top shortstop prospect who may project better at second base, is expected to stay in the middle of the infield, while Chavis could get more of a look with his close to 100 major league innings at the hot corner.

“Jeter right now, no. I just want him to play in the middle of the field,” Martinez said. “Chavis, yeah, we'll get him some time over there as well. I like him. He plays second, third, first, could play a little left field, too. So yeah, he'll get some time over there.”

Martinez has also mentioned Alu and Downs getting reps in the outfield soon.

But with the outfield depth they do have and the shrinking depth at third base, the left side of the infield will be more of a priority.

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