In explaining at the GM Meetings last month that second base wasn’t a position of need as they build the roster for the 2019 campaign, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo listed all the options already in the organization that could play there next season.
“We like our situation in the middle of the infield with Trea [Turner] and Howie [Kendrick] and [Wilmer] Difo and [Carter] Kieboom in the wings,” Rizzo told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty.
“We got [Luis] Garcia in the wings that we don’t feel is far away. We like our depth there; we really like the ability level there.”
“We’ve got some extreme high-ceiling players that we think are going to be really good performers for us, and we got several of them. So I think that it’s not a necessity for us, or a need for us. It would have to be something that we thought was a good value to us.”
Difo has struggled at the plate thus far in his career, however, and Kendrick is coming off an achilles injury that ended his 2018 season in May. Kieboom (21 years old) and Garcia (who’s 18) both have come up as shortstops, though they have each seen time at second, Garcia in his first season in the system, when he played 36 games there, and in 2018, when he played 11, while Kieboom got his first games at second base in during his recent stint in the Arizona Fall League.
Rizzo said at the GM Meetings he was comfortable with Difo and Kendrick sharing duties at second and was confident that Kieboom and Garcia could make the move to the right side of the field if necessary.
He reiterated his belief that the Nationals have the depth they need at second base when he spoke to reporters this weekend at WinterFest.
“We feel good with where we’re at with second base,” he said. “Difo is a terrific defender at second base and at shortstop, which is very, very valuable. Howie is a terrific second baseman. We’ve just got to see how he comes back from the achilles [injury]. We know he’s an elite hitter in the batter’s box, and we’ll see how he moves around at second base, but we’ve got two studs in the minor leagues that are extremely capable of playing both middle infield positions and I think it’s important to have that depth there.”
Asked about Kendrick’s progress in his rehab, Rizzo said he thought the veteran, who’s back in the second year of the 2-year/$7M deal he signed in January of 2018 after coming over in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies the previous July, would be ready for Spring Training.
“He’ll be full-go in Spring Training. He’s beyond the rehab mode, and now preparing for Spring Training mode. So I just saw him, he’s strong as a bull and really looks good.”
Kendrick was a little more circumspect when asked how far along in the rehab process he was this past weekend, explaining that he’d just started running but that he expected that he’d be ready for the Spring.
“I just started running,” Kendrick told reporters. “Monday, I started running on the anti-gravity treadmill. So I’m on schedule. I’m ahead of schedule, but on schedule, so there is really no reason to rush. Running is probably going to be — so far nothing has been overly difficult, we’ve progressed it a lot, a lot of strengthening, and I’m in a good spot right now.”
Asked what step he’ll have to take to trust that he’s ready to go and not think about it as an issue any more, Kendrick said he was there.
“I actually don’t think about it now, I just do what I can do and do what they want me to, and like I said nothing has come overly difficult so far. I think the biggest thing and the most important thing was strengthening it, and continuing to get strength in there, and hopefully I’m still on track for Spring Training. I’m expecting to be ready for Spring. I know things happen and I could say that but something might happen, but if things keep going the way they’re going now I should be ready for Spring Training.”
And if the Nationals need him to play second, Kendrick, who suffered the injury while out in left field, said he thinks he’ll be ready for that too.
“I don’t really know what the plan is as far as that goes, but I just kind of play it by ear,” he said.
“To me, I love the infield, but I know to help the team win you’ve got to do a lot more. I’m not going to go and go like, ‘Oh, I think I should be here,’ I’m not that type of person, I just play where they ask me to play. The most important thing is getting at bats and trying to help the team win and just playing solid defense wherever I’m at. So whether that’s at second, or in the outfield, maybe first base some, it doesn’t really matter to me any more.
“Back when I was younger, I was like, ‘I’m a second baseman. I need to be there.’ But now the whole agenda is to play where I’m needed and try to win ballgames. And you know that’s the biggest thing and the most important thing is just being in the lineup trying to affect the game.”
Difo said he hasn’t talked with Rizzo or anyone with the team about how he’ll be used in 2019, though he too is up for whatever the Nationals need.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk with [Rizzo],” Difo told reporters, through a translator. “He’s the one that makes the decisions. I’m just here to do my part and whatever he decides, whichever one he picks day to day, I’m fine with that. We’re both going to work hard at it.”
Kieboom got exposure to second in the AFL, and he said he’ll add work at second to his usual work at short this winter.
“I think my focus is going to be more towards second base,” he explained. “I haven’t done it in a few years, so I think there’s a little bit more work to be done there in terms of readiness, but I’m going to take a lot of reps at shortstop still, do the same stuff I do every offseason at short, and then at the same time I’m going to add a little more focus to second base.”
Before the work in Arizona, Kieboom joked, he hadn’t played second in a few years.
“I did when I was younger. I used to be the littlest guy on the team, had the weakest arm, so you had to play second base,” he joked.
Playing against the top prospects from around the majors this Fall, he said, was a good way to get a feel for the position.
“To play against talent like that that was out there ... it’s definitely a quicker game, and 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.”
Garcia, who’ll turn 19 in May, said he looked at another 19-year-old major leaguer for inspiration for what he might do in 2019.
“Of course there’s possibilities that run through your head and when I saw it happen with Juan [Soto]. I thought, ‘I’m going to be the next one,’” Garcia said with a smile.
Rizzo’s mentioned him as part of the depth at the position, and the infielder, who’s posted a combined .299/.335/.401 line thus far in two seasons and 176 games in the Gulf Coast, Low-A South Atlantic, and High-A Carolina Leagues since signing with the Nationals for $1.3M in 2016, said he too was comfortable playing second if that’s what the Nats ask him to do.
“I feel really good at second base,” Garcia told reporters, “just because right after I signed at the rookie level I was there a lot. So I really feel comfortable at the position. I think that the one thing I had to work on was sort of my angles with arm when I’m throwing. That’s where I felt the most difference between second and being a shortstop.”
Will Rizzo and Co. in the front office keep saying that they’re comfortable with their options at second right up until the time they sign a second baseman, or trade for one?
If you had to guess, which player (on the roster now or otherwise) will end up playing the most games at second for Washington in 2019?