Would you believe we’ve reached the final countdown to spring training? That’s right, pitchers and catchers are holding their first official workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., in three days. So it’s time to count down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with the ever-pressing question: Will Carter Kieboom seize the starting job at third base? ...
The Nationals had five clear roster needs when the offseason began - first baseman, corner outfielder, No. 2 catcher, No. 4 starter, left-handed reliever - and Mike Rizzo made sure to address all five needs with several weeks to spare before the start of spring training.
Some, however, wondered if there was a sixth position that needed to be addressed all along: a third baseman. Were the Nats truly confident in onetime top prospect Carter Kieboom? Or was there enough doubt about him to convince Rizzo to acquire a more proven player at the hot corner?
As we sit here today, with the first workout of the spring 72 hours away, there’s no question. Kieboom is the Nationals’ starting third baseman. Not that they couldn’t still make a move between now and opening day. But to this point, there’s little indication Rizzo aggressively pursued anyone else, making only token inquiries on a few potential free agents or trade targets just in case the price was right.
So among the 75 players who make up the club’s big league camp roster, nobody will be under as much pressure as Kieboom. His pedigree suggests he should be ticketed for a long and prosperous career. But his performance to date has offered scant evidence he’ll realize that potential.
Combine his 2019 and 2020 stats, and in 44 major league games that included 165 plate appearances, Kieboom owns a .181 batting average, a .309 on-base percentage, a .232 slugging percentage and a grand total of three extra-base hits. He hit his one and only double Sept. 8, 2020. He hit his two homers in his first three games in April 2019.
Those are not encouraging numbers, especially for a prospect whose offensive prowess was never really questioned.
If anything, evaluators were most worried about Kieboom’s defense. His shaky 10-game debut at shortstop in 2019, when he was charged with four errors and rated a ghastly minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved, only amplified those worries. But he actually handled third base well last year, rating among the top defensive players at the position, helped in part by the number of plays he made when the team used him on the right side of the infield while shifting.
What, then, does Kieboom need to show this spring? He needs to show continued comfort in the field. But more importantly, he needs to show a more aggressive and productive approach at the plate.
Though he impressively didn’t chase many pitches out of the zone last season - he drew 17 walks in 122 plate appearances - Kieboom often was too patient, letting good fastballs go early in the count. Manager Davey Martinez wants him to be more aggressive and go after those pitches and not leave himself in so many two-strike counts.
“For me, it’s about getting back to who you are and don’t try to make big adjustments. Just make very simple adjustments,” Martinez said at season’s end. “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.”
What if he doesn’t? That’s less clear.
A year ago, the Nationals had Asdrúbal Cabrera as a fallback option at third base. This year, they’ve got Josh Harrison, who hasn’t been an everyday player since 2018 with the Pirates and hasn’t regularly played third base since 2015.
Perhaps the organization would take a shot on Luis García and let the 20-year-old start at either second or third base (with Starlin Castro potentially impacted by that decision). But club officials have given little indication that’s being seriously considered.
It’s worth remembering, though, that Kieboom is only 23. He’s only played 394 games at all professional levels. Had he not chosen to sign out of high school and instead gone to college, he would’ve been drafted in 2019.
The Nationals typically don’t give up on someone that fast, certainly not a first-round pick. It’s now up to Kieboom to reward them for their decision to stick with him this winter.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this kid,” Martinez said in December. “I think he’s going to be fine, but he’s got to believe that in himself. He’s got to go out there, he’s got to take charge and he’s got to want the job. I’m behind him 100 percent. I’ve talked to him and I’ve told him: ‘Hey, you’re our future third baseman, and the future is now.’ “