What's next for Nats after cuts and what Kieboom has to do

The Nationals livened up an otherwise sleepy off-day on Saturday with a swath of roster trimming that pretty much cements the 26-man roster heading into Thursday's opener. But that doesn't mean general manager Mike Rizzo's work at putting together the best possible team is over.

As other major league clubs make their cuts to get down to the 26-man roster limit, Rizzo will be closely perusing the waiver wire and checking out players who have been released. Simply put, another club in a roster crunch might have to pare a player that might interest the Nats. And if you're Rizzo, you never stop looking for ways to improve your team.

But it would be surprising to see Rizzo do anything major, not after selecting the contracts of veteran utility men Jordy Mercer and Hernán Pérez and giving them spots on the 40-man roster. To do so, the Nats had to designate for assignment another versatile player, Jake Noll. If they expected to find someone markedly better than Carter Kieboom to play third base, the Nats would have held off on clearing a 40-man roster spot until they had to.

Thumbnail image for Kieboom-Carter-Running-White-Sidebar.jpgSuch is the nature of spring training, where non-performance can force even a talented, promising player like Kieboom to hit the reset button and start over again in the minor leagues. Given every opportunity to claim the third base gig, the 23-year-old Kieboom failed miserably, and his prolonged struggles with the bat were not enough to outweigh his surehandedness on defense.

But when you don't produce, you perish - even temporarily. Even a highly touted prospect that was a first-round draft selection. This isn't 2019, when Kieboom was rushed to the majors by a floundering club. He's regressed at bat and looks lost. Maybe a confidence-building stint at Triple-A Rochester is just what the doctor ordered.

So what does Kieboom need to do to regain the trust of Rizzo, manager Davey Martinez and the coaching staff, and his teammates?

* Improve his offense: After watching Kieboom slash a combined .181/.309/.212 over the past two seasons, this spring's .150/.227/.250 log was a major disappointment. Even more concerning, Kieboom had just one spring RBI and often looked lost at the dish. The Nationals know Kieboom can hit. His .287/.378/.469 output in 329 career minor league games is an indication that he can produce offensively. He doesn't have to be a power hitter, but he can't be a black hole with the bat either.

* Keep working on his defense: Even as he struggled during the truncated 2020 campaign, Kieboom graded out well defensively in advanced metrics, particularly in his play when shifted to shortstop or to the right side of second base. People forget that he's a natural shortstop who only moved to the hot corner early in 2019. Though optioned to Triple-A, it's a good bet Kieboom begins the 2021 season at the alternate camp in Fredericksburg, which is where top minor leaguers will work out and stay fit awaiting the delayed start of the minor league seasons in early May. Minor league infield coordinator Jeff Garber and minor league hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich will have their work cut out for them as connect with Kieboom. Extended offensive struggles often show up in defensive miscues, and vice-versa. Hopefully, by the time he reaches Rochester, manager Matt LeCroy and hitting coach Brian Daubach will see some improvement they can build upon.

* Don't get down on himself: Failure is a way of life for every baseball player at every level of the game. Savvy coaches will point out that you learn more from your shortcomings than you do from your successes, and the old adage is true. But a player who has struggled in all facets of the game at one time or another is a candidate to become his own worst enemy, and right now, Kieboom is a guy desperately searching for his footing. He hasn't produced when given chances and he's now got to repair his swing, his glove and his psyche. Perhaps the best outcome would be an extended stretch of success once Rochester begins its campaign. A little bit of positivity goes a long way, and getting back to the basics - while remembering that baseball is, at its core, a fun game - would be a good first step.

Being a prized prospect is a double-edged sword, because most executives and managers don't know how a young player will react to extended struggles, much less failing miserably at parts of the game that once seemed to be easy. Hard work and dedication mean little without tangible results. And that's the crossroads at which Kieboom currently finds himself.

Not every promising guy in the farm system turns out to be Ryan Zimmerman, a guy who seemed comfortable pretty much right away when he finally ascended to the majors after all of 67 games on the farm, entirely bypassing Triple-A (save for a few games on injury rehabilitation stints). Sometimes the jump from minors to majors is too daunting and more seasoning is required. Sometimes the work is done quickly, other times it's more labor-intensive.

It's clear Kieboom remains in the Nationals' plans. They want him to succeed and become a name that is written into a lineup on a regular basis, with performances at the plate and in the field that validate the work he's put in. But to do that, Kieboom is going to have to recommit himself to becoming a weapon with a bat and a sure-handed defender.

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