WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals have a plan and a backup plan to replace Anthony Rendon at third base this season.
Plan A is for Carter Kieboom, long considered one of the organization’s top prospects, to prove he deserves the job this spring and enter the season as the everyday third baseman.
There is no Plan C. There will be no big splash move made in the next six weeks to acquire a third baseman from outside the organization.
“We’re not looking to make a trade,” general manager Mike Rizzo said today. “It’s nothing that has been a priority to us in the offseason. We’ve kind of handled all the options that we need to have at third base through the offseason, and I think it shows with the roster construction, how versatile this group is and how effective they could be.”
Once Rendon signed with the Angels for $245 million in early December, the Nationals quickly turned their attention to the next-best third baseman on the free agent market: Josh Donaldson. They eventually watched the former American League MVP sign with the Twins for four years and $92 million.
That left many to speculate Rizzo would then turn his sights toward a trio of big-name third basemen who could have been available via trade: the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Mariners’ Kyle Seager. But while they did hold some preliminary talks with the aforementioned clubs, the Nationals never found a price they were willing to meet, not wanting to part ways with promising young players like Kieboom and center fielder Victor Robles.
So after signing veteran Starlin Castro and penciling him in as the everyday second baseman, the Nats decided to make the third base job Kieboom’s to lose this spring. The 22-year-old, a natural shortstop, has only 10 games of professional experience at third base. He’ll work exclusively there this spring - he already reported well ahead of other position players - and attempt to prove he’s ready for the assignment.
“It’s not a statistical thing or performance thing,” Rizzo said when asked how he’ll evaluate Kieboom over the next six weeks. “We’ve got to make sure he’s ready to start for us opening day. He’s going to be a good big league player. He’s going to be ready for us at some point. But I want to make sure he’s fully prepared for the rigors of a major league season, playing at a new position for him.”
Kieboom got a brief taste of the majors last season, summoned from Triple-A Fresno to play shortstop in late April after Trea Turner broke his finger and Wilmer Difo struggled to adequately replace him. But aside from a couple of highlight-reel moments ,including a home run in his first career start, Kieboom looked overwhelmed in the majors. He went just 5-for-39 with 16 strikeouts at the plate and was charged with four errors in 10 games at shortstop.
In hindsight, manager Davey Martinez believes Kieboom carried his struggles at the plate into the field with him, resulting in defensive gaffes. He believes the prospect is ready to handle that pressure better this time around, based in part by the way he handled last year’s struggles.
“Obviously it didn’t go the way he wanted it to go,” Martinez said. “But he was very professional. Didn’t change his outlook on the game and how he prepared himself. He was really, really good. That meant a lot to not only me, but to Mike and even his teammates.”
A first-round pick in 2016, Kieboom has shown he has the tools to be a productive hitter, boasting a .287 batting average, .378 on-base percentage and .469 slugging percentage in four minor league seasons. The Nationals are counting on that translating into production at the major league level, sooner rather than later.
“We feel good about the prospects of him being a really good player for us for a really long time,” Rizzo said. “We’re hoping it’s on opening day, but if not we have other options to handle that position.”