The Carter Kieboom dilemma facing the Nationals

Just 106 games into his major league career, Carter Kieboom is at a crossroads. When spring training begins - hopefully next month - in West Palm Beach, the Nationals are hoping that Kieboom, 24, shakes off whatever competition is provided for him and proves he can handle everyday duties at third base.

So far, it's been a mixed bag for the first-round pick in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft. There have been flashes on offense and defense, but Kieboom has pretty much whiffed on the opportunity to claim the hot corner as his own.

Coming off the 2019 World Series title, the Nats could accept those growing pains amid a veteran-laden roster that afforded Kieboom room to mature in the majors. Now, with the reboot underway and Kieboom unable to show much for the Nats' trust in him, he's morphed from a slow-moving prospect into a the kind of dilemma teams dislike facing.

Since he's only 24, there's a good chance Kieboom's best years are ahead of him. And let's be frank: A career .197/.304/.285 slash line with little power and passable defense is a pretty low bar.

Teams that are rebuilding can usually afford to hide an underperforming player with potential, hoping their patience is rewarded and that things click sooner rather than later. But general manager Mike Rizzo doesn't want the current transformation of his team to take a handful of years. He wants to accelerate the process, and in that strategy could be the fire lit under Kieboom's feet.

Fish or cut bait. Step up or step out. Produce or perish. Choose whatever verbiage you want, but the Nats' patience with Kieboom isn't going to be never-ending.

Kieboom got a brief 11-game look-see early in the 2019 season when injuries to shortstop Trea Turner (broken right index finger) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (left elbow contusion) gutted the left side of the infield in late April. Kieboom stepped in, homered in his first and third major league games, stuck around until early May and then headed back to Triple-A Fresno for more seasoning.

Overall, his first exposure to the majors wasn't that impressive: a .128/.209/.282 slash line with two homers, two RBIs and lots of room for improvement. Kieboom seemed to find his stroke at Fresno, where he slashed .303/.409/.493 in 109 games with 16 homers and 79 RBIs, earning a nod in the All-Star Futures Game.

Thumbnail image for Martinez-Walks-on-Grass-Masked-Sidebar.jpgDuring the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, and with Rendon gone via free agency, the Nats turned third base over to Kieboom and got mixed results. He slashed .202/.344/.212 with no homers and nine RBIs in 33 games. His on-base percentage was boosted by 17 walks and Kieboom seemed to find his footing in the field, excelling when called on to shift from third base to the shortstop or second base sides of the keystone.

There was enough progress that the Nats viewed the 2020 season as a good stepping stone for the young infielder. But Kieboom didn't make the 2021 club out of spring training, hitting just .133 in the Grapefruit League, and when he did get to D.C. after the sell-off, a left wrist contusion ended his season in late September.

So which player is Kieboom: a good hitter and fielder who has been slow to adapt to the majors, or a decent fielder who is just overmatched by big league pitching?

Aye, there's the rub.

Baseball history is rife with good players who were slow to develop and then suddenly broke through, often when they sensed they were running out of opportunities. This could be where Kieboom sits heading into camp. The Nats would like nothing better than for him to take the next step, but they can't wait forever.

Though the infield remains largely unsettled, it looks like Josh Bell will play first, free agent signee César Hernández or holdover Luis García will man second, and García or returnee Alcides Escobar will slot at shortstop. Third base? That could be Kieboom - or maybe Escobar, Hernández or Maikel Franco, who was inked to a minor league contract ahead of the lockout.

It appears Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez want to make it clear that Kieboom will have to win his job and that third base isn't just being handed to him.

That said, the Nats would prefer to see Kieboom succeed as opposed to punting on a former first-round selection. Keeping in mind that he's only 24 with minimal major league experience, it's not as if Kieboom is the first young player to struggle to find his way. But it's becoming crystal clear that they cannot wait forever for him to develop. The clock is ticking.

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