Front office executives around the league are constantly searching for players with the “it” factor. If you’ve been to Washington Nationals camp this spring, it’s clear that Carter Kieboom appears to have that elusive “it” factor.
The young infielder has made a huge impression with his bat during Spring Training. He’s slashing a ridiculous .364/.464/.909 with three home runs and eight RBI in just 14 appearances.
In his most recent outing, against the Houston Astros, he launched two balls deep over the fence in left-center field with the wind blowing in. Oh, and they were off of future Hall of Famer, Justin Verlander. Not bad going kiddo.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know who was on the mound,” Kieboom told Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports after the game. “But when I get in the batter’s box, he’s a pitcher. I look at what he throws and what his tendencies are and what pitches are working for him that night, like any other pitcher.”
Yes, it’s only Spring Training. We only need to look at perennial Grapefruit League MVP Michael A. Taylor to know that. Pitchers are working on their own thing in each start.
But the 21-year-old infielder just has an aura about him and a swagger at the plate. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is, but watching him in the batter’s box, you can just tell that he belongs.
We’ve seen a similar level of swagger from Juan Soto and his trademark Soto Shuffle. The two are still very different players, but they have all the intangibles to be among the new faces of the franchise.
Part of that likely comes down to their control of the strike zone. We all saw what Soto can do at the plate last season, and Kieboom has shown that too this spring against primarily big league pitching.
He currently owns five walks compared to just two strikeouts and has frequently been ahead in the count. But he’s also shown good plate discipline throughout his time in the minor leagues too.
Through his three minor league seasons, he’s walked 102 times, while striking out 194 times. He knows how good he is, his demeanor in games shows it, but he’s also staying grounded and realistic with his expectations for the season.
“Ultimately it’s just to stay healthy. I think the best player is a healthy player,” Kieboom said at Winterfest. “I think at the end of the year I’ll be where I want to be, as long as I’m maintaining my health and doing all the things I need to do.”
While eventually he’s going to be kicking down the door of the major league roster with aplomb, there’s still work to do. After never seeing a professional inning at second base before the Arizona Fall League, Kieboom is now on a crash course at the keystone.
As expected, he’s still rough around the edges there, and that was evident during Tuesday night’s game. He made a fielding error in the seventh inning that allowed a run to score, but he also played some ground balls into infield singles for the Astros.
This was expected though, as it’s certainly not going to be an instant transition playing on the opposite side of the diamond. But that’s why the Nationals, who clearly think the world of Kieboom’s bat, brought in Brian Dozier to buy him time to learn his new position.
“The pivot is the biggest challenge any second baseman has to learn,” GM Mike Rizzo said at Winterfest. “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.”
Thankfully, after needing to split time between second and shortstop in Arizona and now in Florida, he should be a full-time second baseman in 2019 either in Double-A or Triple-A, with the latter being more likely so he can face even more advanced pitching.
So while his defensive switch was the reason for Dozier, his bat is also the reason the front office was so adamant to find just a one-year solution. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post put it best. “You can learn [second]. You can’t teach ‘Hit Verlander.’”
It’s hard to imagine that his name hasn’t come up in trade talks, both at the deadline and earlier in the offseason. But the front office held firm, just as they have previously with fellow highly rated prospects Soto and Victor Robles.
Now they could have another potential star on their hands, and all signs point to him being the team’s Opening Day second baseman in 2020. Carter Kieboom is coming, it just seems like a matter of when, not if, he’s going to be a success at the highest level.