If Carter Kieboom looks at home at his stall in the U.S. Team clubhouse at Nationals Park, it’s with good reason: He’s been there before.
Back at the end of spring training, when the Nats hosted the Twins in the final exhibition game before the regular season, Kieboom was in a Nationals uniform, set up in a swath of temporary lockers on one side of the room.
Now, as he prepares to represent the Nationals in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, he’s in the high-rent district - or roughly at a stall between where established stars like Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper usually suit up.
That it’s been little more than two years since the Nationals made him the 28th overall selection in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft is not lost on Kieboom, a 20-year-old shortstop who is slashing .305/.360/.439 in 20 games at Double-A Harrisburg after being promoted last month from Single-A Potomac.
He remembers what his older brother, Spencer Kieboom, now a backup catcher for the Nationals, told him when he was drafted.
“When I got drafted a couple of years ago, he said, ‘You’re about to start the greatest journey of your life,’ and to enjoy every moment of it,” Carter Kieboom said. “That’s all I’ve done. It goes by quick; it’s already been two years. Every day is a new day, and if you’re struggling or whatever, just take a step back and look. Be grateful for what you have in front of you, and I just love the game. That’s all I can do.”
Luckily, Kieboom’s struggles have been few. It was his advanced hit tool that attracted the Nationals to select him out of Walton High School in Marietta, Ga., and he hasn’t disappointed with the bat. At Potomac this season, his .298/.396/.494 line with 11 homers and 46 RBIs forced the Nationals to push him up a level to face better pitching.
Though he’s exclusively played shortstop in the minors, there are some evaluators who think he might be better suited as a third baseman or second baseman in the future. So during spring training and pregame practices, he moves around the infield to get work at multiple positions.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Kieboom said. “A lot of guys play shortstop their whole life and then they get called up and they play second base.”
Because of his advanced hitting approach, there’s been an emphasis on Kieboom’s defense this season, and he’s been eager to learn and improve in the field.
“Defensively, it’s come a long way,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of help from Jeff Garber, our coordinator, and put together a great routine for myself. It’s gotten me to a great spot. Offensively, it’s been fantastic. Just try to stay within yourself and keep it simple.”
Can you really keep it simple when you’re diving to make stops and anticipating where a ball might be hit?
“Make the routine plays and everything else, the ‘SportsCenter’ plays, will come and go,” Kieboom said. “I think if you just keep yourself focused and make the routine plays routine consistently, then that’s when you have fun and make all the spectacular plays.”
Neither Kieboom, nor the Nationals’ other representative in the Futures Game, Dominican infielder Luis Garcia, were slated to start. So fans will have to wait to see the hometown players in the showcase of baseball’s best up-and-coming talent.
Kieboom expects a warm reception from fans at Nationals Park.
“I think it will be, hopefully, a pretty nice response,” he said. “I think Spencer (being) up here has started to build our name up here. To be able to come up here, in front of this town and this crowd that hopefully I’ll be able to play in front of for a long time, I’m sure they’re going to be extremely warm and welcoming.”
While Kieboom held court at his locker, Garcia seemed to be a little more reserved in the World Team clubhouse. But at 18, he’s also the youngest player on the World roster and the only player in the game to be born in 2000.
“It doesn’t really matter that I’m the youngest player,” he said. “I’m excited to be here.”
Across the room are guys who had long major league careers - former closer Francisco Cordero and slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this month. The World Team will be managed by former Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. Who wouldn’t be a little overwhelmed, considering it’s his first trip to Nationals Park.
“When I was 8, maybe 9 years old, I’d see them on the television,” Garcia said.
Garcia was a $1.3 million international signing by the Nationals in July 2016 as a 16-year-old. Baseball America ranked him as the third-best prospect in that summer’s international class, and the Nationals were content to give him some time to fill out his 6-foot, 190-lb. frame because he displayed advanced hitting skills, intriguing speed and strong defensive capabilities.
Nationals fans got a brief glimpse of Garcia in spring training, when he was brought over from minor league camp to fill out gameday rosters a couple of times.
“There’s lot of fans around and I’m excited to play in front of a lot of fans,” he said.
The Nationals aren’t rushing Garcia, whose father of the same name had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1999. He started this season at low Single-A Hagerstown, where he hit .297/.335/.402 with three homers, 31 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 7 games, earning a bump to high Single-A Potomac, where he has slashed .333/.364/.405 in nine games.
But if desire and confidence count for anything, Garcia has a bright future ahead of him.
“This game is my life,” Garcia said. “This game, playing makes me very happy.”
Update: The U.S. Team outslugged the World Team 10-6 in a Futures Game that featured eight home runs. But the tiebreaking run came in the seventh inning when Brendan Rogers of the Rockies swung and missed at a third strike that went for a wild pitch by the Phillies’ Adonis Medina, scoring the Angels’ Jo Adell to snap a 6-6 standoff.
Kieboom was 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts and Garcia walked in his only plate appearance.
Yusniel Dias of the Dodgers went deep twice for the World Team, while Seuly Matias of the Royals and Luis Alexander Basabe also connected. For the U.S. Team, Danny Jansen fo the Blue Jays, Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pirates, Taylor Trammell of the Reds and Peter Alonso of the Mets went deep.
Trammell was named the game’s top player. He went 2-for-2 with a triple, a homer and two RBIs.