Spring training storylines: Is Kieboom the answer at third?

We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the most important storylines surrounding the Nationals this spring. We continue today with the search for Anthony Rendon’s replacement at third base ...

When Bryce Harper departed for Philadelphia one year ago, the Nationals knew exactly how they intended to account for his loss. They had three starting outfielders already in house, and most importantly, they were confident Juan Soto could make up the offensive production Harper used to provide.

They were right. Soto’s .949 OPS and 4.7 WAR each outperformed Harper’s 2019 numbers with the Phillies, not to mention his career average over eight big league seasons.

One year later, the Nationals find themselves in an oh-so-familiar situation, needing to account for the loss of Rendon to the Angels and hoping a top prospect is up for the challenge. This time, though, there’s far less evidence to convince anyone Carter Kieboom actually will do it.

Kieboom-C-Boots-Grounder-Blue-Sidebar.jpgThere may be no player in uniform this spring at Nats camp watched as closely as Kieboom, the 22-year-old infielder touted as a future star since he was drafted in 2016 but now about to be thrust into the spotlight with way of knowing how it’s all going to turn out.

We’ve seen only a brief glimpse of Kieboom in the big leagues. It came during a painful 11-day stretch early last season when the Nationals were in a tailspin and desperately needed someone to step in and play shortstop with Trea Turner injured and Wilmer Difo ineffective. Kieboom delivered an eye-popping moment in his April 26 major league debut, homering off Padres reliever Craig Stammen, but things quickly devolved from there.

During his 11-game tryout, Kieboom managed only five hits in 39 at-bats. He struck out 16 times. He went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Most telling, he was a mess in the field, charged with four errors in 40 chances and deemed to have amassed minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved. (Essentially, he cost his team a run in the field nearly every game he played.)

Clearly overwhelmed, Kieboom was demoted to Triple-A Fresno, where he spent the remainder of the season, hitting .303 with a .409 on-base percentage and a .902 OPS.

Now the organization’s top prospect gets another chance to make a first impression, this time as Rendon’s potential replacement at third base. Manager Davey Martinez said last month he plans to give Kieboom every opportunity to win the starting job this spring, and sure enough that appears to be the club’s intention over the next six weeks.

What can reasonably be expected of Kieboom? Most every talent evaluator agrees he’s going to be a productive major league hitter, someone who will both hit for power and be patient enough to take his walks. Of far greater concern is his performance in the field, and that’s where the evaluations begin to differ.

Some believe Kieboom is good enough to play shortstop in the big leagues. And if he can play shortstop effectively, he should have little trouble playing third base. But some already doubted his defensive skills a year ago, not just at shortstop, but at second and third bases as well, and that left some wondering if there is a position on the field that suits him.

The Nationals went into the offseason willing to consider Kieboom at either second or third base. Once they signed Starlin Castro to a two-year, $12 million deal and anointed him their starting second baseman, there was only one position left for Kieboom to fill.

He has played only 10 games at third base as a professional, none in the majors. And now he must try to make everyone forget about the perennial Gold Glove Award finalist who used to man that position. But he insists he is comfortable there, and as he said last month at Winterfest: “I look forward to showing everybody what I can do.”

What happens if Kieboom isn’t up to the task this spring? The Nationals’ Plan B is headlined by Asdrúbal Cabrera, the versatile veteran who was such an important midseason pickup last year and was brought back to provide Martinez some peace of mind in the infield.

Cabrera, 34, isn’t a natural third baseman. He has spent the vast majority of his career at shortstop and more recently has seen more time at second base. But he has played 165 big league games at third, including 98 last season (93 of those with the Rangers before he came to the Nats). He was charged with seven errors in 247 chances and finished with a Defensive Runs Saved rating of minus-4.

Howie Kendrick also could see some action at third base this spring, though team officials don’t view him as an everyday option there.

No, this club really has put a lot of eggs in Kieboom’s basket. If it works out, the loss of Rendon may feel as insignificant as the loss of Harper last year. But at this point, it’s still an awfully big gamble.

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