In a simpler time in the world, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the biggest story for the Washington Nationals in 2020 was whether Carter Kieboom would be ready to take the reins at third base, helping fill the gigantic void left by Anthony Rendon.
A lot has changed since those Spring days when the Nats were eagerly awaiting packed houses to see the team raise a World Series banner and receive their championship rings.
Now, as Major League Baseball attempts to ramp back up with Opening Day less than a week away, if the Nats are to have success in the severely shortened season on the field, Kieboom still appears to be the biggest variable.
During Spring Training, there were more than a few doubts as to whether the team would really throw Kieboom into the fire at the hot corner to start the season.
There was some rough defense, to put it lightly, at third base with more than his fair share of misplays and airmailed throws. The bat started slow but had at least started to come around in the final week or so of Spring Training before MLB shut down shop.
However, as the Nationals opened camp for the second time this year, his manager gave a vote of confidence...
“We’re definitely looking at Carter Kieboom to play third base for us,” manager Dave Martinez stated in his first conference call with reporters of Spring Training 2.0.
That doesn’t mean the infielder is going to rest on his laurels by any means.
“I’ll be honest, the first thing that ran through my head was, ‘Let’s keep the job,’” Kieboom said when asked about his manager’s statement. “It’s one thing to get one, but it’s another thing to keep it and progress that way, so that’s kind of where my head’s at right now.”
To keep the job, he’ll need to do much better than he did in last season’s short big league stint.
In 11 games, Kieboom slashed just .128/.209/.282, walking four times and striking out 16. That poor performance with the bat was compounded by even worse defense as he committed four errors and looked overmatched at shortstop in the majors.
Nobody thinks that he will reach those lows again over the course of a full...er, 60-game...major league season. After all, he owns a .287/.378/.469 career minor league slash line and had an OPS north of .900 last season in Triple-A, even if it was a hitter’s haven.
That’s made this a crucial couple of weeks for Kieboom to truly prove he will be closer to the player he was in the minors instead of the small-sample disappointment of 2019.
However, it’s pretty tough for those not at the ballpark to get a read of how exactly he’s doing.
Early in camp, workouts were spaced out to prevent too many players from being on the field at the same time. And while the intrasquad scrimmages have begun, they’re far from a competitive scenario and more of a way for players to just shake off the lingering rust.
Trying to read into a player’s performance in intrasquad games makes even Grapefruit League stats seem meaningful. So it’s probably more important to focus on the little things.
In Wednesday’s simulated game, there were some more of those rough edges on defense for Kieboom. In the third inning, he whiffed on a sharp bouncer off the bat of Starlin Castro where he just seemed to get himself into a bad position, never giving him a chance.
He did at least redeem himself a bit with a slick double play against Castro again an inning later. On another sharp grounder, he was able to grab it one-handed, touching third base before throwing to first for the second out on the play.
It was a familiar theme to the team’s first round of Spring Training where often he would make errors on plays that should be made, but was able to show a short memory and make similar plays either in the same game or a day later.
In general though, as the second iteration of camp has progressed, the coaching staff still seems optimistic about how the 22-year-old has looked in simulated game action...
“He’s swinging the bat better right now, he really is,” Martinez explained on Wednesday. “He’s actually maximizing his swing. We talked earlier about just not feeling for the ball, just letting it go, and not waiting to swing until he gets to two strikes.
“Just go up there and be ready to hit. You’ve got three strikes, use them all. He’s been doing that. He’s been swinging the bat a lot better.”
Kieboom almost certainly won’t replace Rendon’s production on his own, that’s not a fair burden to put on any one player. But what he does need to do is at least help to fill that void and do his part, as with their All-Star third baseman, the key to success is getting extra contributions across the board to make up for the gaping hole Rendon has left.
There might be more valuable players on the team in 2020, but Kieboom appears to be one of the biggest variables for the Nats in the abbreviated season. How he performs may well have a big say in the defending champions' fate.