PLAYER REVIEW: CARTER KIEBOOM
Age on opening day 2021: 23
How acquired: First-round pick, 2016 draft
MLB service time: 150 days (prorated)
2020 salary: $564,700 (prorated $177,954)
Contract status: Under club control, likely arbitration-eligible in 2023, likely free agent in 2027
2020 stats: 33 G, 122 PA, 99 AB, 15 R, 20 H, 1 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB, 1 CS, 17 BB, 33 SO, .202 AVG, .344 OBP, .212 SLG, .556 OPS, 54 OPS+, 5 DRS, -0.3 fWAR, 0.1 bWAR
Quotable: “He’s never struggled in the past. For me, it’s about getting back to who you are and don’t try to make big adjustments. Just make very simple adjustments. That’s something we talked about, and he’s going to work on this winter: Just keep it simple. You hit before. You’re going to hit again.” - Manager Davey Martinez on Kieboom
2020 analysis: On the first day of summer training, Martinez seemed to make it clear the organization’s top position-player prospect was going to be his starting third baseman. “As of right now, yeah,” the manager said July 4. “I anticipate in a 60-game season that he’s going to go out there and play every day.” That did not happen.
Asdrúbal Cabrera, not Kieboom, started on opening night, a decision Martinez attributed to a more favorable matchup against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole than anything else. Kieboom did get a chance to play some, but his struggles at the plate led to plenty more chances for Cabrera to start over him.
On Aug. 26, the .200-hitting Kieboom was sent down to the Nationals’ alternate training site in Fredericksburg to work on his swing. He returned 10 days later, at which point he finally got the opportunity to play almost every day (for a team that recognized it wasn’t going to reach the postseason) until he was struck by a pitch on his left wrist and wound up on the injured list for the season’s final week.
In the end, Kieboom started 30 games, and his supposed strengths and weaknesses were the exact opposite of what most expected. In the field, he actually played a solid third base, ranking among the best at the position in advanced metrics. (Though it should be pointed out many of his positive plays came while shifted around to what would normally be the second baseman’s spot on the infield.) At the plate, he never figured it out, producing only one extra-base hit (his first career double) and never once “barreling” up a ball (according to Statcast’s definition).
2021 outlook: The Nationals thought they would come out of the 2020 season knowing if Kieboom was going to be part of the plan for 2021 or not. They don’t. Or, at least, they have little evidence to date to suggest he clearly deserves to be part of the plan.
Few in the organization ever questioned whether he’d be able to hit big league pitching, but his body of work to date suggests he can’t. Over 165 plate appearances, he’s hitting .181 with one double, two homers (both coming in 2019), 49 strikeouts and a .232 slugging percentage that is last among the 445 major league position players who have taken at least as many plate appearances over the last two seasons.
If you’re looking for a bright spot, Kieboom has shown better-than-average patience at the plate. He posted a solid .344 on-base percentage this year and showed a willingness to work the count. But that may have come at the expense of his production, and the coaching staff actually wanted him to be more aggressive and look to hit fastballs earlier in the count.
The Nationals have to decide if a 23-year-old former first-round pick deserves another shot. If so, they need to commit to him and let him sink or swim without fear of a quick demotion next April. But if they don’t believe it’s going to happen, they probably need to move this winter to find a different long-term answer at third base. And then figure out what to do with Kieboom.