In a regular, 162-game campaign, Carter Kieboom, as a 22-year-old being tossed into the deep end as a starting third baseman in the majors with relatively little experience at the position, would be under a tremendous amount of pressure and scrutiny.
Kieboom, a highly-regarded, highly-ranked, 2016 1st round pick, is being asked to replace a player, in Anthony Rendon, who was arguably the MVP of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals during the regular season, in which he produced a .319/.412/.598 line, 44 doubles, and 34 home runs in 146 games and 646 plate appearances, over which he was worth 7.0 fWAR.
In what’s going to be, if it works out, an abbreviated 60-game sprint of a season, conducted amidst a pandemic, Kieboom is going to be tested.
“It’s going to be tough,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters in a Zoom conference call on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re in a different state of mind right now,” he added. “What I just want him to do is come out here and relax and have fun. He’s got all the ability in the world to play up here and play up here for many years.”
No pressure, kid. How will he respond to it?
“We just want him to just go out there and have fun,” Martinez said. “He’s looked good. He’s hit the ball really well during batting practice. His defense has definitely improved.
“It’s going to be like any young player, we’re going to stick with him and just give him time, and get him ready, just like we’re getting everybody else ready.”
Martinez, a veteran of 16 MLB seasons himself, has a coaching staff with a number of former major leaguers, all of whom, the manager said, have something to offer their young infielder as he tries to get ready for the 2020 campaign.
What is their message for Kieboom as he’s adjusting?
“It’s about coaching and teaching him,” Martinez said.
“When he makes a mistake, he knows. We go over there and we pick him up, tell him, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen. It’s happened to all of us. Keep your head up and get to that next play.’
“‘Get to that next pitch.’ But we’ve all been there, so we understand and he understands that hey, there are going to be some growing pains, but he’s got to live through it and he’s just got to bounce back.”
When he struggled in a brief stint in the majors last April/May, during which he went 5 for 39 (.128/.209/.282) with two homers, four walks, and 16 strikeouts over 11 games and 43 plate appearances, Kieboom also made four errors in ten games in the field, and he had a tough time adjusting to the speed of the game at the big league level, at least in his manager’s assessment.
“The game gets quicker,” Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman this winter.
“That’s something a young player needs to understand. ... Now it’s just getting him out there and getting him reps out there.”
“It’s always hard to get live game-type reads in an offseason or practicing, it’s always going to be different,” Kieboom said this week when asked how he felt during Spring Training 1.0 this past March, before the baseball world shut down, and what he did over the layoff to get more comfortable with the speed of the game at this level.
“But I think that the experience I had in Spring Training, the experience I had in the big leagues last year, those all played factors leading up to now in terms of my comfortability and how to slow the game down. I’ve learned lots of things from those two experiences.
“That’s kind of what I’m going off of right now, is my previous time up here and my previous time in Spring Training at third base and that’s kind of what I’ve got right now.
“In terms of offseason work or second offseason stuff, I took tons of ground balls, worked on them hit hard, slow ones, I did everything. I tried to check all those boxes, so that way when I showed up I wasn’t a step behind, I felt like I could be a step ahead.”
As for where he is now, in terms of comfort at third base, which is, to reiterate, a fairly new position for the infielder who was drafted as a shortstop?
“I finished camp, getting more and more reps, game reps, which were huge for me, over at the new position, to see balls off the bat differently,” Kieboom said, but then Spring Training shut down and he was forced to work out mostly on his own, with a trainer, which does limit what one can do.
“In practice, the biggest thing was getting the feet in the right direction, and the footwork, and lining up throws in that way. In terms of practicing, obviously I couldn’t do any game stuff, but practice, I really didn’t stop. I was able to go get to a place, and just one on one with my guy back home and we didn’t stop. I hit, took ground balls, obviously I didn’t get to go out on the field very often, got to do that a couple times before I came out here, but it was — I feel very good.”