Perhaps the busiest team of the offseason, the Washington Nationals have constructed a roster that’ll look very different from the one it trotted out Opening Day in 2018.
Additions to the rotation, bullpen and catcher position have prompted a 91-win projection from FanGraphs that suggests the Nats will be the team to beat in the NL East. There are still holes on the fringes of the roster — namely a fifth starter and left-handed reliever — but only one major decision looms: Who starts at second base?
On the surface, this hole seems like a pretty straightforward fix. Howie Kendrick will be coming off an Achilles injury and Wilmer Difo failed to take advantage of his first full season at the plate last year, creating the need for an infielder to hold down the position until top infield prospect Carter Kieboom reaches the majors.
The second base free agent market is stocked full of veteran infielders who could fit that mold, including DJ LeMahieu, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison, Jed Lowrie and Brian Dozier. However, most of those players are likely seeking long-term deals, which could block Kieboom from finding extended playing time in D.C. once he’s ready.
Washington held on tight to Kieboom despite his name creeping up in trade rumors for J.T. Realmuto, and for good reason. Trea Turner is the only everyday infielder on the Nats’ roster signed past 2019, as Anthony Rendon’s contact is set to expire at the end of next season and Ryan Zimmerman will have a pricey team option the Nats aren’t expected to pick up.
The Nats have engaged in extension talks with Rendon and Zimmerman expressed that he’d like to finish his career in D.C., but Kieboom represents an insurance policy in case Rendon explores the free-agent market next winter. While he doesn’t play third base, Kieboom would fill the hole at second and give Washington the financial flexibility to sign a top hitter at the hot corner.
It’s no surprise the Nationals have been connected to the likes of Harrison and Gonzalez, both of whom have logged significant time at both second and third base. Washington could justify giving one of them a longer contract because they could shift across the diamond amid a Rendon departure and still leave an opening for Kieboom in the starting lineup.
However, it’s likely the Nats don’t make any significant move for an infielder until they know how long Rendon will be in D.C. If he does sign an extension, it could entirely change how Washington approaches the rest of the offseason.
Perhaps it takes the Nationals out of the market for the marquee free-agent second basemen to keep a spot open for Kieboom. Maybe they shift their focus to a player who could move over to first once Zimmerman isn’t being paid $18 million a year anymore. Most interestingly, it could also just make Kieboom entirely expendable.
The consensus top second baseman available is LeMahieu, and the Nats are rumored to have been interested before backing off due to the high price tag. With Rendon locked up, the Nats could splurge on LeMahieu or Jed Lowrie and ensure that they have second base, shortstop and third base all set in stone for at least the next two to four seasons.
That should bridge the gap for the Nationals’ next infield prospect, 18-year-old Luis Garcia, who finished last season at High-A Potomac and can play any position on the infield. The Nats could afford to deal Kieboom in a package for players who might have been out of their price range such as Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber. He also could very well be enough to convince the San Francisco Giants to part ways with Madison Bumgarner as the team enters a rebuild.
If the Nationals get the sense that Rendon will be moving on after next season, then an infielder like Gonzalez or Harrison is very much in play. Kieboom would no longer be expendable, but the money Washington planned to allocate toward Rendon could be used elsewhere.
It’s been a busy offseason in the nation’s capital, but some big moves could still be waiting in GM Mike Rizzo’s back pocket. While the team could go in several different directions to put the finishing touches on its roster, determining Rendon’s future could be a huge factor in determining the rest of its moves as well.