The promotion lasted all of 11 days, during which time Carter Kieboom experienced the full gamut of emotions.
He homered in his major league debut April 26 to earn a curtain call but struck out with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth later that night. He homered again two days later, then got just two hits in his next 27 at-bats. And he had all kinds of misadventures in the field, charged with four errors in only 10 games while misplaying a couple more balls.
And then it was over. With the Nationals desperately needing to right their fast-fading season and unwilling to keep putting a rookie shortstop out there every night to be exposed, Kieboom was sent back to Triple-A Fresno on May 7.
He never returned to the majors in 2019, left to watch the Nats turn their season around and then win the World Series from afar. But he insists he was never bitter about that.
“Being sent down didn’t set me back at all,” Kieboom said Saturday at Winterfest. “I was still very excited, not derailed by any means. When I got sent down, it was kind of like a relief. I could get back to really finding myself and finding who I was again. Get back to my craft and focus on what got me there in the first place.”
What got Kieboom to the majors at 21 was his prodigious bat and his athleticism in the field. Fans caught glimpses of that during his brief time in Washington, but he looked overmatched far more than he looked ready for the assignment.
Once he returned to the minors, though, Kieboom did get back to being himself again. He hit .303 at Fresno, with 16 homers, 79 RBIs, a .409 on-base percentage and .902 OPS in 109 games. He was charged with only six errors in 62 games at shortstop. (For comparison’s sake, Trea Turner was charged with 13 errors in 122 games at the big league level last year.)
And as the clock ticks down to the 2020 season, the Nationals still view their 2016 first-round pick as an elite talent on the verge of becoming a major league regular.
“We feel that he’s going to be a really good player for us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “A 21-year-old in the big leagues and then in Triple-A all season, that doesn’t happen very often. We feel good about where he’s at. We feel he’s an everyday player in the big leagues that can hit in the middle of lineups and be a good big league player for many, many years to come.”
How, exactly, Kieboom fits into the immediate plans, though, is very much unsettled.
Unless Turner gets hurt again, the Nationals have no need for a shortstop. So Kieboom spent much of the latter half of the 2019 season learning the ropes at both second base and third base. In the meantime, the Nats either acquired or re-acquired three veterans capable of playing either position: Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro and Asdrúbal Cabrera.
As they always maintain with every one of their top prospects, the Nationals will only put Kieboom on the major league roster if he’s going to play nearly every day. If not, they’ll send him back to Triple-A. He won’t come off the bench.
If nothing else, it appears clear Kieboom will be given plenty of opportunities to earn a roster spot this spring, at both positions. And he insists he’s comfortable at either spot.
“I don’t have too many (reps) as compared to what some guys get,” he said. “But I really feel comfortable at both of them. I look forward to showing everybody what I can do at both of them, especially third base in spring training. That’s something I’ve really worked hard on this offseason, aside from the hitting and second base. Still doing some stuff at shortstop - you never know - but third base is something I’m really looking forward to.”
Whether it happens in late March or later in the season, the Nationals will hope to put Kieboom into a lower-pressure situation than he found himself last year. When Turner broke his finger in the Nats’ fourth game, Rizzo was adamant he thought Kieboom needed more seasoning. Three weeks later, the GM decided to give the kid a chance, and though there was a highlight or two, in the end his fears were confirmed.
This time around, the Nationals can only hope they can give their top prospect time and patience to solidify his place at this level.
“I’m as ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said. “I got my taste last year. ... I’m better off from it. I think as a player, if you get an opportunity to go up there and it doesn’t work out, you get another opportunity to go up there and it can’t really be bad.”