Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told reporters earlier this week, as he has consistently all winter, that though he is comfortable with the options at second base currently in the Nationals’ organization, including Howie Kendrick, Wilmer Difo, top infield prospect Carter Kieboom, and 18-year-old infielder Luis Garcia, he is open to the idea of an addition if there is the right one out there on the free agent or trade markets.
“I don’t see it as a big priority,” Rizzo explained. “I feel comfortable with where we’re at with that particular position. There is a glut of free agent possibilities out there, a lot of good players, but we never rule anything out and if there is a value that we feel is worthwhile we’ll certainly explore it.”
MASN’s Mark Zuckerman reported that a source said the Nationals would at least consider a hybrid infielder, who could play second base and move over to back up Ryan Zimmerman at first base if necessary.
“If there was a definite everyday second baseman that we liked that we thought was an upgrade, we would certainly consider that,” Rizzo said on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings.
“If it was more of a kind of a hybrid role, we would consider that. We’ve left ourselves open to a lot of different types of options, a lot of different ways to build the bench and the back of the roster.”
Kendrick is, of course, trying to return from a season-ending achilles injury, and Difo, while solid defensively, struggled to produce at the plate in 2018, (with a .230/.298/.350 line, 14 doubles, seven triples, and seven home runs in 148 games and 456 plate appearances), so Kieboom and Garcia are important enough for the Nationals’ plans that Rizzo was asked on Day 3 of the Winter Meetings if the two infielders were essentially untouchable this winter.
“If the right offer comes we’d trade anybody at any time,” Rizzo said, “but those two guys are special players for us and they would be tough for us to part with.”
Kieboom, in particular, seems in line for the first opportunity should Kendrick or Difo fail to produce.
Drafted as a shortstop, he moved over to second base in the Arizona Fall League to get a feel at the new position should he be needed there in 2019.
“To play against talent like that that was out there,” Kieboom said earlier this month of his work at second in the AFL, “it’s definitely a quicker game. I think that’s the closest thing I can get to playing in the big leagues at that position, so to play second base and get all those reps was definitely beneficial for the future.”
And how do Kieboom’s relatively quick rise and impressive production (.280/.357/.444, 31 doubles, 16 HRs in 123 games and 558 PAs between High and Double-A in 2018) factor into the Nationals’ decision-making at second base?
“I think that Carter’s versatility — to me I see him as an everyday shortstop that we’re going to teach to play second base, so he’s got versatility, so I don’t see the second base market affecting his timeline or his developmental curve,” Rizzo said.
So, Rizzo was asked, would he avoid signing someone to a long-term deal that might block Kieboom if he appears ready to make the jump at some point this season?
“I don’t see it as blocking,” he explained.
“It would depend on who we’re talking about and what capabilities that player has,” Rizzo added, “... but I would just generally state that we’re not going to halt [Kieboom’s] progress by rushing him to the big leagues, or I don’t think anybody on the second base market is going to curtail us because of his timeline.”
Speaking of timelines, how long does the GM expect it will take for Kieboom to get used to playing second base, after playing short exclusively since he was selected in the first round (28th overall) in the 2016 Draft?
“I don’t know,” Rizzo acknowledged.
“It depends. He’s a terrific athlete and he’s got an unbelievable baseball IQ, so I don’t see it being a long developmental curve. He hasn’t played very much. He’s a young minor league player, so it’s the intricacies of playing middle infield, especially second base is delicate, so it’s something that we’re going to make sure he knows what he’s doing before he gets there, because it’s dangerous if you don’t.”
“I think maybe just the footwork around the base for turning double plays and stuff like that,” Kieboom said when asked about what he still needs to work on as he adjusts.
“You kind of lose momentum over there at second compared to short, but it was a pretty smooth adjustment. We worked with it every morning with [AFL and Potomac Nationals’ hitting coach Luis Ordaz] and we got to where we wanted to be with it.”
“The pivot is the biggest challenge any second baseman has to learn,” Rizzo said. “The pivot from other infielders to him at the base and from him to the shortstop at second base. Like I said it’s a delicate position to play and it’s one that you can really get hurt at if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
So will Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office sign a second baseman (who can play a little first base if necessary)? Will they stick with Kendrick and Difo knowing that they have Kieboom waiting in the wings if they need him and Garcia behind Kieboom threatening to become the next teenaged major leaguer?
More Reading: WaPost columnist Thomas Boswell on free agent options at second base: