As Kieboom struggles, Nats looking at Castro at third base

Four days ago, Davey Martinez was asked if Starlin Castro had taken any grounders at third base this spring. The Nationals manager had a succinct but sly response.

“No,” Martinez said Friday. “So far, it’s just been second. So far.”

Whether he knew at that moment the answer was about to change, or whether he only knew it might change, it did indeed change. Castro began taking grounders at third base over the weekend. And this afternoon, he’s starting at the hot corner in the Nationals’ Grapefruit League game against the Cardinals, a development dripping with all sorts of intrigue as the final week of spring training gets underway.

Has Carter Kieboom, still struggling at the plate, lost the starting job? Is Castro, a natural middle infielder with 45 games of experience at third base two years ago, about to make the permanent switch? Are the Nats suddenly going to give the second base job to 20-year-old Luis García?

“This doesn’t mean anything,” Martinez tried to insist during his pregame Zoom session with reporters this morning. “We just want to see what this looks like right now. Carter’s going to get an opportunity to play third base. We’ll see how it looks. This is the last week. We’ve got to hone in on some things. No decisions have been made yet. But we want to make sure we take the 26 best guys that we can possibly take.”

Kieboom-Tags-Runner-ST-sidebar.jpgThe Nationals may not have made any final decision on the identity of their opening night third baseman, but this much they’ve clearly decided: Kieboom hasn’t locked up a job that was all but handed to him on a platter all winter and spring. Despite opportunities throughout the offseason to seek a more established alternative at third base, general manager Mike Rizzo stuck with his 2016 first-round pick, despite his uninspired offensive numbers over 165 big league plate appearances.

Kieboom entered camp optimistic about his chances, citing both laser eye surgery he underwent and changes to his batting stance and swing. His struggles, though, have continued this spring.

The 23-year-old enters the day batting .171/.216/.286 with one RBI, two walks and 11 strikeouts. He did double in each of his last two games over the weekend, but offensive progress has been slow as the regular season fast approaches.

“Once it clicks - and I think this will happen with Carter, because Carter had unbelievable success in the minor leagues - and when he’s good, he hits the ball really hard,” Martinez said. “So we want him to get back to that. We don’t want to put tons of pressure on him, either. We want it to come. We know what Carter can do when Carter is Carter Kieboom. We’re just going to keep an eye on him. He’s played out there almost every day this spring. We’re just going to watch him to see if he progresses.”

In the meantime, they’re going to watch Castro at third base and see how he looks.

The 30-year-old is a four-time All-Star, the first three as a shortstop with the Cubs, the most recent as a second baseman with the Yankees. Since joining the Nationals in 2020, he has been touted by Martinez as a natural at second, with the ability to play both shortstop and third if needed.

Castro’s official experience as a third baseman all came late in the 2019 season with the Marlins, when he moved to the position despite no prior experience. He was charged with four errors in 107 chances and finished with a rating of 0 Defensive Runs Saved.

“He played 45 games over there and did really well,” Martinez said. “I want to give him some time to take ground balls, but he says he’s fine. He’s got good hands and good feet. He’s going to get a chance to play there today, possibly tomorrow, and we’ll see how he looks.”

Castro’s switch third base, whether temporary or long-term, leaves a vacancy at second base, one which would most likely be filled by García. The young prospect is highly touted by the organization, and he held his own in a 40-game debut last summer after Castro broke his wrist.

But García remains a raw talent who, in an ideal world, would have more time to develop in the minor leagues. He has yet to spend a day at Triple-A, and in 17 games this spring his offensive numbers (.138/.286/.172) are worse than Kieboom’s.

“When he gets balls in the strike zone, he’s a kid that could hit 15 to 20 home runs,” Martinez said. “But he swings so much, he never gets to that spot. So we want him to be more aggressive, but aggressive in the strike zone, and know which balls he can hit hard.”

That’s a lot of uncertainty with one week to go in Florida, and a lot of things club officials still need to see in the few remaining days they’ve got before making a final decision.

But if it wasn’t already clear before today, it should be abundantly clear now: The Nationals aren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen at third base over the last five weeks. And so the time has come to try something different and see if it proves a better solution.

“Because Starlin is playing over there, it doesn’t mean that we made any decision whatsoever,” Martinez cautioned. “We got a week left. But we want to make sure that if something does happen, that we don’t throw Starlin over there opening day and say: ‘Hey, go get ‘em!’ I’m not going to do that to him, either.”

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