What do Nats expect from Kieboom and García in 2021?

Had you asked anyone affiliated with the Nationals on opening day which rookie would garner the most big league plate appearances in 2020, the answer would’ve been Carter Kieboom every single time.

Luis García? Well, perhaps the 20-year-old would make his debut at some point, but he wouldn’t see significant action. Certainly not more than Kieboom, who had been touted as the club’s everyday third baseman from the first day of spring training.

A quick glance at the Nationals’ season-ending stats might surprise you. García indeed wound up with more plate appearances (139) than Kieboom (122). That was in large part a product of the starting job at second base opening up after Starlin Castro suffered a season-ending wrist injury. But it also was a product of Kieboom’s struggles at the plate, and of the manner in which each rookie handled the pressure of a starting job in the majors.

“I think it was a big step forward for both of them,” general manager Mike Rizzo said this week during a Zoom session with reporters. “Eye-opening, I think, for both of them, to see what the speed of the games are and how difficult it is to grind it out on a daily basis, even though it was a very short season. That’s something they’ll have to build upon for next year.”

The Nationals have so many things to figure out between now and the day they report for spring training (whether in mid-February as scheduled or later due to coronavirus concerns). But among the decisions they have to make are a determination about Kieboom and García’s readiness to play at the highest level right now and whether one or both would be better served opening the 2021 season in the minors.

Thumbnail image for Kieboom-Carter-Running-White-Sidebar.jpgThere appears to be more of an opening on the 26-man roster for Kieboom, who at the moment remains atop the depth chart at third base. That could change, of course, if Rizzo elects to acquire a veteran like Justin Turner or Kris Bryant to handle the position. But the way both Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez spoke this week, they seem to expect Kieboom to arrive in West Palm Beach the frontrunner to win the job.

“I’m behind him 100 percent,” Martinez said. “I’ve talked to him, and I’ve said: ‘You’re our future third baseman, and the future is now. You’ve got to come to spring training and be ready to go. The job is yours, but you’ve got to earn it.’ He knows that. Moving forward, hopefully he comes to spring training ready to go.”

Of course a manager is going to talk up one of his players, especially a young one. But there were also some subtle hints in Martinez’s answer to a question about Kieboom that the 23-year-old needs to think as highly of himself as his manager publicly does.

When a slumping Kieboom was demoted to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg for a short stint last summer, Martinez suggested the longtime prospect was getting too down on himself when things weren’t going well. That manifested itself into poor play and a poor approach at the plate.

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this kid,” Martinez said. “I think he’s going to be fine. But he’s got to believe in himself. He’s got to go out there, he’s got to take charge and he’s got to want the job.”

Confidence was not a problem, on the other hand, for García. Thrust into the spotlight between games of an August doubleheader in Baltimore after Castro suffered his injury, the charismatic rookie started his career off with a bang. He had two hits (including a double) and two RBIs in his major league debut, and four games in, he was 6-for-17 with the double, a homer, four RBIs and a .977 OPS.

García showed flashes of brilliance but also looked very much like a 20-year-old who hadn’t played above Double-A prior to his promotion. With Castro fully recovered now and expected to remain the Nationals’ opening day second baseman, García probably will be ticketed for Triple-A Rochester to begin 2021.

“We’re just going to get him in spring training and see where he’s at,” Martinez said. “I know he’s working his tail off right now. We talked a lot about quickness with him. Quickness and agility and flexibility. And he’s been doing that. He looks really good this winter. He did really well last year, but he’s young. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see how our roster sets up come spring training.”

One way or another, both Kieboom and García will find their way into the Nats lineup at some point next season. And the organization’s top brass continues to tout both players as long-term pieces of the puzzle.

What, though, should realistically be expected of them in 2021? Should they be counted upon to take positive steps forward and become the impact players the club has always believed they will be? Or were the downsides to their 2020 seasons precursors to larger issues that aren’t about to go away just because they’ve aged 12 months?

“I think they just have to show a year more experience,” Rizzo said. “That was their big flaw - as it is with many, many rookies - is that you’re a rookie. You can’t get experience in the big leagues other than playing in the big leagues. The speed of the game, the length of the games and how focused you have to be for such a long period of time is something that’s a learned experience, in my opinion.”

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