Nats never pursued other third basemen, confident in Kieboom

One by one, Mike Rizzo crossed off five must-have items on his offseason wish list this winter.

Power bat: Josh Bell.

Corner outfielder: Kyle Schwarber.

No. 4 starter: Jon Lester.

Left-handed reliever: Brad Hand.

No. 2 catcher: Alex Avila.

Those were the five roster holes the Nationals absolutely needed to fill. And though some may have felt there was a sixth hole that needed to be addressed as well - third base - Rizzo never believed it was necessary to make anything more than the standard check-in calls with agents and fellow general managers. He never got serious about pursuing someone else to play third base instead of returning prospect Carter Kieboom.

Kieboom-C-Swings-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“You know, we really didn’t,” Rizzo said today from West Palm Beach, Fla., during a Zoom session with reporters to kick off spring training. “We have confidence in Kieboom that he’s going to be a good player.”

The debate on Kieboom raged all winter. Some saw the 23-year-old hit .202 with only one extra-base hit in 33 games last season and concluded he’s not worthy of an everyday job on a team with championship aspirations. Club officials, most notably Rizzo, see a former first-round pick with only 165 big league plate appearances and insist it’s far too soon to write him off.

“We have too many guys with too many eyes on him that think he’s going to be a really good big league player,” Rizzo said. “I’m not going to judge any player off (165) plate appearances in his major league career. We see him as a guy with great upside for us who’s going to be a really good player for us.”

Kieboom, to be fair, was thrust into an unenviable situation one year ago. With Anthony Rendon off to Anaheim, the Nationals entrusted third base to their 2016 top pick, albeit one who came up through the minors as a shortstop and had barely any experience at third base.

Primary attention last spring and summer was on preparing Kieboom defensively. And he actually performed better in the field than most expected, ranking among the majors’ best third basemen with five Defensive Runs Saved (some of that aided by his frequent repositioning on the right side of the diamond when the Nats deployed the shift).

At the plate, though, Kieboom struggled mightily. A career .287/.378/.469 hitter in the minors, he showed good patience (17 walks in 122 plate appearances) but almost no power during the abbreviated 2020 major league campaign. An early season groin strain may have played a role in all that, but the Nationals coaching staff also felt like he wasn’t aggressive enough at the plate, often taking hittable fastballs for strikes early in the count.

“Here’s a kid that had so much success in the minor leagues, and we really feel like he can bring that success up here,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I just want Carter to go out there and have fun, relax and just play the game like he’s played it in the minor leagues. I’ve talked to Riz about this, and we’ve had unbelievable conversations about him. I 100 percent believe in Carter, and I think he can help us.”

Both Martinez and Rizzo cited old examples of promising players who struggled early in their careers but were given time to prove their worth.

“My first (53) games (with the Cubs in 1986), I think I ended up hitting .139,” Martinez said. “So for me to judge a kid, a prospect, after 44 games and 100-some at-bats, it doesn’t seem right.”

“If we listened to Twitter World,” Rizzo added, “we would have gotten rid of Robin Ventura when he was 0-for-48 or something like that (actually 8-for-45) in his early days in the big leagues.”

So as tempted as some might have been to pursue Kris Bryant or Eugenio Suárez or Justin Turner this winter, the Nationals felt they were best served sticking with the prospect they’ve long believed will be a foundational player in D.C.

Now it’s up to Kieboom to prove their faith was justified.

“It’s hard to judge on these short snippets of games and at-bats,” Rizzo said. “We have to lean toward our evaluators who have seen him through years and progressed through the system, and trust that he’s the player that we think he is.”

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