Important candidates wishing to bounce back from injury

It's Christmas morning, and all who celebrate are rushing to see if their holiday wishes were placed under the tree.

For the Nationals, that could have been any number of things coming off a 107-loss year.

But like every major league team over the course of a 162-game season, the Nationals dealt with their fair share of injuries this year.

In fact, they placed 24 different players on the injured list for 25 different stints, with Stephen Strasburg landing on the 10-day IL at the start of the season while recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome, and then on the 60-day IL with a stress reaction in his ribs after his lone start in June.

Those 24 players combined to miss 1,778 games for the Nationals in 2022. So like many, the Nats may be wishing for better health in 2023.

Try stuffing that down a chimney.

But some of those injuries from this past year were less concerning than others.

Victor Arano avoided disaster when he injured his left knee in early June and only missed 36 games before he was activated off the 15-day IL in mid-July. Luis García missed just nine games in August due to a left groin strain before finishing out the season.

Other guys weren’t as lucky. Evan Lee was placed on the 60-day IL with a left flexor strain on June 18 and never returned to pitch this season. Same goes for fellow young hurler Jackson Tetreault, who was placed on the 60-day IL in early July with a stress fracture of the right scapula to end his first taste of the big leagues. Yadiel Hernandez went down with a left calf strain around the same time as García, but wound up missing the rest of the season.

Of course, the Nationals would love for all injured players to bounce back next year and contribute for the long haul. But today we’re going to highlight two players – one position player and one pitcher – as important candidates to return healthy from the same procedure and perform at the big league level.

As much as some are holding out hope for Strasburg, I’m not counting on him returning to form next year, if ever. Thoracic outlet syndrome is very difficult to come back from, leaving the former World Series MVP’s future very much up in the air.

Would he be a welcomed boost? Obviously. But we’re not counting on it for this exercise. That would be a Christmas miracle.

The first candidate is Carter Kieboom, who missed all of this year due to surprise Tommy John surgery.

Yes, the mention of Kieboom is sometimes met with frustration from Nats fans who have yet to see the former first-round pick develop into an everyday major leaguer. But keep in mind his limited experience in the big leagues.

Kieboom has only played in 106 games with the Nationals, 90 of which came at third base. And while his career slash line of .197/.301/.318 leaves much to be desired, perhaps he’s still waiting for a breakout season. Just three years ago, over 109 games at Triple-A Fresno, he slashed .303/.409/.493 for a .902 OPS, 24 doubles, three triples, 16 homers and 79 RBIs. He seemed to be close to earning full-time major league reps before the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and an up-and-down season between Triple-A and the majors in 2021.

After Kieboom missed all of 2022, if the Nationals can get some form of productivity from him, that would allow them to be flexible with their lineup construction. Let’s say he plays well enough in spring training to win the third base job. That would allow Jeimer Candelario to move to first base or designated hitter, bumping Joey Meneses to left field or DH.

Is it too early to assume Kieboom will be able to perform at a high level with his track record and recent injury? Yes. But if he can bounce back, that’s added infield depth and versatility for the Nationals to go along with Thursday's waiver claim of Jeter Downs.

The other candidate is more of a sure thing once he returns. The question is more: When will he return? Tanner Rainey landed on the 60-day injured list with a right ulnar collateral ligament sprain on July 13, leading to him also needing Tommy John surgery.

Rainey wasn’t perfect as the Nationals closer during the season’s first couple of months. He went 1-3 with a 3.30 ERA and 1.300 WHIP over his 29 appearances before his procedure. And although he converted 12 of 16 save opportunities, it wasn’t always pretty.

But Rainey has proven that, when he’s on, he has great stuff for the back end of the bullpen. Luckily, the Nationals bullpen was their biggest strength this year, with a majority of it returning after Pitcher of the Year Erasmo Ramirez was re-signed to a one-year contract this week.

The Nats will have plenty of swing-man-type relievers to bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan in the back end of the ‘pen during Rainey’s absence. Maybe even Sean Doolittle, who is recovering from his own elbow injury, will join them off his minor league contract by making the team out of spring training.

Rainey is further behind Kieboom in his Tommy John recovery, and has to build his arm up more as a pitcher. If he follows the typical 12-to-18 month recovery time, we could see Rainey return to action for the second half of the season. Whenever he does return, manager Davey Martinez likened it to a free agent signing in the middle of the season as reinforcement for an already supposed strength.

The Nationals’ focus next year is going to be on their new young core of MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli, Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, García and CJ Abrams. While all of them dealt with injuries or fatigue down the stretch, they should all be ready to go by spring training.

But if the Nats can get bounceback seasons from Kieboom and Rainey, that would be two unexpected performances from two players with a lot to prove coming off injuries.

Talk about a Christmas wish granted.

* On a personal note, I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I'm very thankful to have a small part in this Nationals community, and I hope all fans and readers have a very safe and happy holiday season.

I'll be taking some time off between now and through the new year, with Mark Zuckerman returning from his vacation this afternoon. There may be a post here or there depending on breaking news, but expect me to return to a normal writing schedule and podcasts after next weekend.

Thoughts on last week's Nationals news
Looking back at the Josh Bell trade

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