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Washington Nationals 2020 Season Preview: FBB Roundtable discussion - Carter Kieboom, Joe Ross, First base mix + more...

We sat around the virtual roundtable, and discussed some of the questions that will have to be answered when/if they start to play again...

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With no Opening Day this past week, and the most likely scenario at this point a season that starts in June or July if it starts at all, we decided that we’d gather around the virtual roundtable every week or so for the foreseeable future and discuss topics of concern for Nationals fans and fans of baseball in general to attempt to generate some conversation while we all wait to see how it all plays out over the next weeks and months. Who will be the starting third baseman in D.C. when they do start to play? Did Joe Ross earn the fifth spot in the Nats’ rotation this Spring? When will they actually start to play baseball? Let’s talk...

The Participants:

  • Patrick Reddington - Question asker
  • Blake Finney - FBB’s returning champion
  • Marty Niland - New “kid” on the block
  • Did we mention that there was once again significant turnover on FBB’s undervalued staff, [Bye, Will & Matt!], so if you read this and, like, actually want to contribute to FBB, maybe shoot me an email. Seriously, we’ll really need help eventually.

[ed. note - “Okay, okay, now on to the questions and the answers. As noted above, I (Patrick) asked the questions this time around, so I kept my opinions to myself, and let Blake and Marty share their opinions this time. We’ll probably switch things/roles up going forward and maybe we can solicit opinions from the commentariat if anyone out there wants to try to participate in these attempts to generate content in these content-starved times.”]

1. Who’s going to be playing third base in the majors when/if the 2020 season starts? Did Carter Kieboom show he’s ready to take the leap this Spring? Did he look too green in Grapefruit League action? Are the Nationals better off with Asdrúbal Cabrera at 3rd for now?

Blake Finney (BF): Well, Davey Martinez mentioned towards the end of the abbreviated Spring Training that the third base job was Carter Kieboom’s to lose, so when baseball eventually resumes, he seems to be in the driver’s seat.

While the defense wasn’t pretty, which might be a tad generous, with Kieboom, it’s his bat that’s the key. Even though he started slowly at the dish, he was drawing plenty of walks before he started hitting and flashed that potential with the bat towards the end.

If the Nationals are going to compete, they need Kieboom to live up the hype to some extent at the plate as they try and make up for the lost production from Anthony Rendon. So I think that’s how they start 2020, with Asdrúbal Cabrera waiting in the wings if things go south early.

Marty Niland: For the time being, Carter Kieboom represents the Nationals’ future at third base. Kieboom didn’t win the job in the abbreviated Spring Training so much as he didn’t lose it. He played well enough to earn a further audition in the early part of this season. But that was before this season was shortened considerably by the COVID-19 crisis. With a shorter season on tap, Kieboom’s window to earn the job full-time may last only a month. And I do believe the Nats will excuse even marginal defense as long as he’s making good contact at the plate. The Nats know what Cabrera has to offer. If Kieboom hasn’t slugged himself into a starting job after about a third of the season, Cabrera would likely get a shot. Potentially large rosters during an abbreviated season increase the trade possibilities as well if neither catches fire.

2. Davey Martinez seems to be a big Joe Ross booster, and Ross seems likely to be the 5th starter, anyone think that two years removed from Tommy John he can claim the final spot and stay healthy and productive? Think someone else should get the 5th spot?

[ed. note - “Erick Fedde was optioned to Triple-A Fresno after these questions went out, so it looks like Ross and Austin Voth will be on the Opening Day roster if we read anything into the Nationals’ roster moves this week, and we’re with the majority of opinion-havers out there in thinking it will be Ross in the rotation and Voth in the pen, at least at the start of the season.”]

Blake Finney: As big a fan as I am of Austin Voth, Joe Ross would absolutely deserve the fifth starter’s role and would appear to be in pole position to fill the job, at least to begin the season.

After all the hoopla of going back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, Ross seemed to settle in when he replaced Voth late in July. In his final eight starts of the season, the right-hander posted a 2.75 ERA and looked a lot like he did when he first burst onto the scene.

Another year removed from Tommy John surgery, Ross seems primed to take another step forward, especially as his role in the rotation seems stable as opposed to last year.

Marty Niland: Joe Ross spent his first full season back from Tommy John surgery bouncing around like a hot shot to the left-field corner, but he earned a chance to become the Nationals’ fifth starter by pitching his heart out in the World Series. Davey Martinez clearly had high confidence in only a few of his pitchers last postseason, but he trusted Ross to take the mound in what seemed at the time like the pivotal game of the Series, as an emergency replacement for Max Scherzer. With Astros’ ace Gerrit Cole opposing him and the Nats Park capacity crowd behind him, Ross allowed five hits and two walks over five innings. He did make mistakes with men on base to Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa, and his four earned runs made him the losing pitcher. But Ross’s effort was enough to show he belongs back in the Nats’ rotation. He’ll have to hold onto the No. 5 spot, but Ross has the tools to do that.

3. Who should get the majority of starts at 1B? Who will? How would you split the time at first base between Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames, and Howie Kendrick?

Blake Finney: This feels like asking how will you divide your inheritance up between your children. Such a tough question with three strong options, with very different strengths and weaknesses.

At this point in their careers, Howie Kendrick is the best hitter of the three and should be playing as much as his body allows. However, even he will admit that he can only start two or three times a week, maybe four at most, some of which may come at second or third.

When healthy, Ryan Zimmerman has also been a very productive player, sporting a 120 OPS+ over the last three seasons. But “when healthy” is doing some heavy lifting here, as in the last two seasons, he’s played just 85 and 52 games respectively.

So, this situation may end up with Eric Thames seeing the majority of time at first base, especially with his superior splits against right-handed pitching that should net him most of the starts against them anyway.

In terms of a rough percentage, the ideal percentage would probably be 40% of starts at first for Zimmerman, 40% for Thames, and 20% for Kendrick while he also takes time at second. But in reality, we may see 50% for Thames, 25% for Zimmerman, and 25% for Kendrick.

Marty Niland: This three-way platoon system should work itself out very nicely. Thames rakes against right-handed pitchers (.254/.348/.529, 23 homers in 2019) and should get the majority of the starts in those games. Zimmerman and Kendrick are both veteran right-hand hitters who each can handle certain righties on the mound along with most lefties. Overall health may dictate which one starts any given game, but in a shorter season, each should have more stamina. History tells us that Zim will have at least one torrid streak; it’s only a matter of how long it lasts. Kendrick will likely put up solid batting numbers throughout the season, and if he stays healthy, he could help on defense at other infield positions.

4. When do you expect the season to start assuming they do actually play this summer? How would you handle a shortened campaign?

Blake Finney: Quit asking me tough questions. Every day, the coronavirus situation is evolving and it’s tough to know what the sporting landscape will look like in a week, let alone a month or two.

But if you had to ask me to guess when we might start seeing baseball again, I would probably say that there’s some form of behind-closed-doors Spring Training in mid-to-late June. That would then potentially lead to “Opening Day” in early July, at the earliest.

If that’s the case, you’re looking at something like a 100-game season, with some scheduled doubleheaders in there, that leaks into October and a World Series finishing in mid-November.

Given the crowded schedule, the report of MLB expanding the active roster to 29 players for the first month makes sense, allowing more pitchers to be used through the early-season when starters are still working their pitch counts up and to help manage possible doubleheaders.

Marty Niland: The conditions for a 2020 season are still widely unknown, but it’s clear that the season will be unlike any before. And while the owners and MLBPA are still haggling over details, they’ll likely have to play a season of close to 100 games in three months. I can see Opening Day happening on the Fourth of July, with no All-Star Game, but some sort of skills exhibition. An expanded postseason would likely begin in October and run through November. Seven-inning doubleheaders are usually reserved for minor leaguers, but we may have to tolerate them in these dire circumstances.

Look for a lot more of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s gimmicks to be adopted experimentally to gin up excitement. Nats fans may cheer yet for the man who starts the 10th inning on second base to score the winning run. Neutral, warm-weather parks for the postseason? Why not, if the alternative is no baseball. We’ve seen now that owners are open to expanding rosters. This could be the most crucial factor. Role players like Michael A. Taylor or Wilmer Difo are more likely to make the team, more likely to play in games, and more likely to appear in crucial situations. Also, with the shorter season, will we see more “Johnny Hustle” behavior from players who might have kept something in the tank otherwise?

[ed. note - “That’s it for today, and as noted above, we’ll try to do these things regularly while we wait for baseball to return to our lives.”]