WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - If it wasn’t already clear before, Davey Martinez today made his plan for the Nationals infield this spring very clear.
Starlin Castro will get all of his work at second base for now. Carter Kieboom will get all of his work at third base for now. Asdrúbal Cabrera will get the bulk of his work at third base. Howie Kendrick will work mostly at first and second bases for now, but will get some action at third later in camp.
Though this new conglomeration of Nationals infielders is loaded with versatile players who can play multiple positions, the intention this spring is to create at least a few established roles, and then adjust later if necessary.
The key to this plan working, it seems, is for Kieboom to prove he’s ready to be the club’s starting third baseman. The 22-year-old, the organization’s top prospect, has only 10 games of minor league experience at third base, but he insisted today he’s ready for the assignment.
“I feel very comfortable there, and I feel very prepared and ready to go,” he said. “This is all I’ve been working on all offseason, and at this point in my career, this is the most I ever felt prepared and ready to play.”
Kieboom, a natural shortstop who also got work at second base last year, particularly appreciates the fact he won’t be asked to bounce around multiple positions over the next six weeks.
“That helps,” he said. “It always helps when you have some reassurance on what your primary goal is for the season. Last year, I came in and played a lot of shortstop still, and worked on a lot of second base last year. I was doing two positions. I kind of knew ahead of time what the primary goal was, and that’s third base. Now I’m not doing 50-50, or 60-40. I’m doing 100 percent third base.”
Castro also has experience around the diamond, including 45 games at third base last season with the Marlins. But the Nationals signed the 29-year-old to be their starting second baseman, and that remains the plan as camp opens.
“Right now, I just want him to play second base,” Martinez said. “Maybe towards the end of the spring, we’ll get him over (to third base) for a few games. I know he was put over there for a few games last year, and he did well. We looked at his numbers, and he did well over there. But I want to keep him at second base for now, let him get his feet underneath him and get him going.”
That’s how things were set up initially last year, but Suzuki’s offensive prowess and Gomes’ struggles led to Suzuki taking over as the club’s de facto primary catcher for much of the year. A strong September by Gomes (while Suzuki was dealing with an elbow injury) proved the former Indians catcher does still have it in him, and so the Nats are hoping more regular action early on in 2020 helps him sustain that production.
“It could help him get in a rhythm,” Martinez said. “It could help Suzuki stay healthy. All these things, we’re going to think about and get it all sorted out. But the beautiful thing about it is, I’ve got two veteran catchers that work really well together. And if you put their numbers together, they’re the best tandem catchers in the big leagues. Their numbers were incredible together.”
Martinez also wants to make a point to have Suzuki work with Patrick Corbin more this spring after the two barely paired up last season. That probably means more starts for Gomes when either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg is on the mound.
* Today is Feb. 17, and unless you live under a rock you of course know that means it’s National Cabbage Day. The Nationals certainly know it, because for the second straight year, they celebrated by holding a cabbage relay race prior to this morning’s workout.
Two teams of pitchers and catchers lined up opposite each other on the agility field outside the clubhouse. First base coach Bob Henley, barking out instructions so loudly his voice cracked several times, explained that each team needed to pass a head of cabbage down the line, with the final player at the end of the line smashing the cabbage on the ground.
The winners, and defending champions? Team Scherzer (with Sean Doolittle as closer and designated cabbage smasher), over Team Strasburg (with Daniel Hudson as closer and cabbage smasher). The way they reacted afterward, you might have had flashbacks to Oct. 30 at Minute Maid Park.
“They love to compete,” Martinez said. “When we do these things, it’s fun. But that’s what we do for a living: We compete every day. It’s just something to take them off the everyday baseball thing. But they’re competing. And when you’ve got a guy like Max that loves to win at everything, they’re going to compete.”
* A very important shipment arrived at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches today: The Nationals’ giant championship sign.
Seeking to one-up their neighbors from Houston, who have a modest “2017 World Series Champions” sign below the big logo displayed outside their side of the complex, the Nats hauled in a huge, home plate-shaped sign and reading “2019 World Champions” below the visage of the U.S. Capitol dome and above a curly W logo. It may be visible from space.