Few players will have a microscope trained on them in spring training like Carter Kieboom, who will get a laser focus usually not afforded rookies.
It will take another move and several weeks to determine exactly what role Kieboom will have with the Nationals in 2020, and in that way alone, the upcoming camp will be a lot like Kieboom’s first on the major league side last spring.
Back then, he would have made Crash Davis proud by spouting the appropriate cliches about being happy to have escaped minor league camp and doing whatever he could to help the team. That’s standard operating procedure when you’re a rookie in a veteran-laden clubhouse. You tend to lay low, stay out of people’s ways and try to let your work habits do the talking for you.
Last spring, it was not a surprise when he was reassigned to minor league camp on March 23, after slashing .279/.353/.558 with three homers and nine RBIs in 25 Grapefruit League games. The Nats wanted to see what they had in the then 21-year-old, their first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft. There were some rough edges to be smoothed out, as you’d expect, but Kieboom acquitted himself well and made the kind of impression most rookies hope to make.
Because he’s a natural shortstop, a position already occupied by Trea Turner, the Nats took advantage of spring games by also trying Kieboom at second base. Pretty standard stuff: If you’re blocked at one position, being able to play another might open a path to the major leagues more quickly. Because Kieboom possesses athleticism to go along with an advanced batting eye, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez were confident in this approach.
When Turner went down in early April with a broken right index finger, Kieboom didn’t immediately get summoned from Triple-A Fresno. But as the Nationals’ struggles became more intense and shortstop became a black hole of production, he was recalled on April 26 to make his major league debut. Kieboom started strong, homering in his first big league game - and in two of his first three contests - before finishing on a 2-for-27 bender that left his slash line at .128/.209/.282 over 11 games before he was optioned back to Fresno.
In 109 Triple-A games last season, Kieboom registered a healthy .303/.409/.493 line with 16 homers and 79 RBIs. His power numbers might have suffered in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League because he was being moved around the infield, playing shortstop (62 games), second base (41 games) and third base (10 games), as the Nats continued gauging his abilities to handle spots other than his natural position. When September rolled around, instead of being called up in the middle of a pennant race, Kieboom was dispatched to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was told to stay in shape in case he was needed in an emergency.
Now, on the heels of the team’s World Series victory and a busy offseason, Kieboom faces even more of an unknown heading into camp, since how the Nationals decide to solve their opening at third base after the departure of free agent Anthony Rendon will impact the rookie’s future.
The Nats could go with Kieboom at third and hope he grows into the position. But Rizzo and Martinez are usually wary of setting up young players for failure, and would probably prefer to at least start Kieboom in Triple-A in 2020 and hope he plays his way into the hot corner conversation.
On the other hand, if the Nats solve their third base dilemma by signing a free agent such as Josh Donaldson or trading for a veteran like the Mariners’ Kyle Seager, Kieboom’s roadblock would reappear. There’s no opening at shortstop, with Turner under team control through 2022, so second base might be the best way for Kieboom to expeditiously reach the major leagues.
For now, the Nationals have signed postseason hero Howie Kendrick to a one-year, $6.25 million deal with a mutual option for 2021. The idea is for Kendrick to play mostly second base and occasionally spell Ryan Zimmerman (who is still technically a free agent but expected to return) at first base. But as Kendrick is 36 and has a history of leg problems, the Nats would be wise to make sure there is someone to at least split time with him to prevent the veteran from overdoing it.
That could be Wilmer Difo, who seems primed be become the team’s utility infielder. Or camp could be the opportunity Kieboom has been seeking to build in the impression he made last spring in Florida.
Kieboom, as you might expect, looked most comfortable at shortstop last season in Triple-A, where he put up a .975 fielding percentage and committed only six errors in 237 chances. Third base was a challenge defensively for him, albeit in a small sample size that saw Kieboom make four errors in only 32 chances over 10 games. But Kieboom looked pretty good at second base, with a .969 fielding percentage and six errors in 194 chances at the keystone.
Infielders moving from the left side to the right often have a major adjustment, but scouts have noted that Kieboom is becoming increasingly adept at second base, especially at turning double plays, which is frequently the biggest obstacle to overcome.
It’s a good bet that Kieboom will continue to work with coach Tim Bogar, who directs Nationals infielders, on second base come spring training. And the Nats may decide having a good athlete at third base is to their liking. Nothing is permanent - remember, Rendon was a natural shortstop when he made his way to the majors in 2013, moving to second base because the Nats had Ian Desmond at short. Rendon waited until 2013 to take over full-time at third base.
Where does Kieboom eventually fit best? That’s a question that cannot be answered right now, though the Nationals’ roster machinations in the coming weeks might bring things more clearly into focus.