After another down year, will Kieboom get another shot?

PLAYER REVIEW: CARTER KIEBOOM

Age on opening day 2022: 24

How acquired: First-round pick, 2016 draft

MLB service time: 1 year, 76 days

2021 salary: $570,500

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2024, free agent in 2027

2021 stats: 62 G, 249 PA, 217 AB, 26 R, 45 H, 6 2B, 0 3B, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 25 BB, 62 SO, .207 AVG, .301 OBP, .318 SLG, .619 OPS, 72 OPS+, minus-8 DRS, minus-0.7 fWAR, minus-1.1 bWAR

Quotable: “It’s a matter with him of making adjustments. He started off with six quick home runs; the league made an adjustment with him. Now it’s time for him to make an adjustment to the league, and the great ones do it and the average ones don’t. So the jury’s still out if he can make those adjustments, but he’s got the skill set and the tools to be a good everyday player in the big leagues. And again, we have to have patience with a player that was a high school draft (pick). It takes a little bit longer to develop than a college player.” - general manager Mike Rizzo

Thumbnail image for Kieboom-Throw-Gray-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: For the second straight year, the Nationals entered spring training expecting Carter Kieboom to be their starting third baseman. And for the second straight year, come opening day someone else was starting at third base. What followed was another up-and-down season that didn’t leave the one-time top prospect any closer to finally establishing himself as a long-term answer for the organization.

During the final days of a dismal spring, Kieboom was optioned to Triple-A, with Starlin Castro shifting from second base to start instead at third base and Josh Harrison becoming the everyday second baseman. Kieboom would actually make the opening day roster as one of several replacements following the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, but he made only two plate appearances and was among the first players sent back down once regulars began to be cleared to return.

Kieboom wouldn’t be called back up again until July 24, at which point the Nationals’ season was already spiraling out of control, and Castro was placed on administrative leave (and eventually suspended) following an allegation of domestic abuse. From that point on, Kieboom finally got an opportunity to start at third base every day and prove if he was the answer there.

The results, though, were mixed at best. Kieboom did enjoy a brief period of success: Over a 12-game stretch in early August, he hit .333 (14-for-42) with two doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and a .920 OPS. Over his final 38 games, he hit a mere .175 (25-for-143) with four doubles, three homers, nine RBIs and a .537 OPS.

In the field, Kieboom often looked stiff or uncomfortable at third base, especially when trying to transfer the ball from his glove to his throwing hand. He did show signs of improvement by season’s end, making some nice plays while charging in to field choppers or bunts. But he nonetheless ranked 37th out of 41 big league third basemen in Defensive Runs Saved.

2022 outlook: Once again, the Nationals are confronted with the question: Do they intend to enter another season with Kieboom as their preferred starting third baseman? On one hand, there’s no reason not to give him another shot. If the team isn’t expecting to win in 2022, isn’t this precisely the kind of situation to give some rope to a struggling prospect and find out once and for all if he can flip the switch?

On the other hand, what reason has Kieboom given the Nats to believe that a long-awaited breakthrough is imminent? The only offensive stat he’s produced that qualifies as league average or better is his walk rate, and even that went down from 13.9 percent in 2020 to 10 percent in 2021. His strikeout rate (24.9 percent), hard-hit rate (36.3 percent) and contact rate (70.5 percent) are all below league average.

Defensively, Kieboom doesn’t appear to project as anything more than an average third baseman, if that. And after two years of instruction at the hot corner, there hasn’t been any discussion of moving him to another position.

Big picture: Kieboom has now taken 414 big league plate appearances over parts of the last three seasons, during which time he has hit .197/.304/.285 with seven doubles, eight homers, 31 RBIs and a .589 OPS. Plenty of prospects have needed more time than that to figure things out and go on to have productive careers. But at some point, it sure would be nice if Kieboom offered the Nationals more than just a passing glimpse of his full potential.

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