Considered the presumptive third baseman in D.C. going into Spring Training 2021, Carter Kieboom struggled at the plate in Grapefruit League action (going 5 for 45, .133 AVG, with two doubles and a triple in 17 games) before the Washington Nationals’ brass decided they would send their 2016 1st Round pick to Triple-A to start the season.
Kieboom, 24, came back up briefly when the club was hit with a COVID outbreak before Opening Day, but he didn’t get regular at-bats in the majors until late July, right before a sell-off kicked off a reboot of the entire organization.
The club was eager to see what Kieboom had been working on.
“They said he made some changes to his swing,” Davey Martinez said when the Nats called Kieboom up to the majors again on July 24th, after he recovered from a knee injury which kept him out of action in the preceding weeks.
“I’m curious to see — other than watching video,” Martinez said, “just watching how he goes about his business up here, and how he attacks the pitchers.
“But most of all I just want him to go out there and have fun, make the plays, and just go out there and help us win.”
Kieboom struggled out of the gate back up with the Nationals, hitting just .200 (4 for 20 with no extra base hits) in the first games, before he went on a nice run in the month of August, going 20 for 74 over a 21-game stretch (.270/.368/.473 line, three doubles, four home runs, nine walks, and 21 Ks).
“I’ve been trying to get ready to hit for the last year and a half and I think I’m finally ready to hit,” Kieboom said early in that stretch.
One at-bat against the Cubs, he said, changed things for him and it clicked.
“I felt something kind of different, and then from there, just taking that same feel to every single at-bat now and I think that’s been the biggest difference.”
“I just feel like I’m in control in the batter’s box now,” he added in an August 5th Zoom call.
“I feel like I’m giving myself a huge chance to succeed at this point, versus in the past I was scuffling and I wasn’t driving the baseball. So, I’m ready to hit now, and in terms of being comfortable and slowing it down, I think just experience, being up here last year and a little bit the year before, and being around all these guys all the time in Spring Training, just gives you a sense of being comfortable. So yeah, I feel a lot better, and I think that’s just because of being ready to hit and as well as being up here for a couple years now.”
The adjustments he made which Martinez was eager to see, Kieboom said, were mental and mechanical.
“I mean, I think it’s a little combination of both. I think it’s mentally start your swing earlier and then mechanically move your body,” he said.
“So yeah, I think it’s just you get ready as early as you can and be comfortable with being uncomfortably early.”
His manager liked the changes he saw when he got a good look at Kieboom in person.
“He’s done a lot better this time around, he really has,” Martinez said. “He’s got a lot more confidence. Every day I see him he’s getting more and more confidence, so — and he’s swinging the bat well. He’s playing defense — I know he’s been working with [bench and infield coach Tim Bogar] ... but he’s playing a lot better.”
Kieboom wasn’t able to sustain that success, however, and over the final weeks of the 2021 campaign, he went just 21 for 122 at the plate (.172/.252/.246), with three doubles and two home runs over 32 games and 135 PAs down the stretch, in which he walked 12 times and struck out 34 times.
His manager talked over the final weekend of the season about where he’d seen the young infielder grow and what Kieboom still needs to work on going forward.
“His defense has definitely improved, you know, for me,” Martinez explained. “He’s only been playing that position for a short time. He has gotten better. Of course, he’s got to continue to work and get better, but I’ve seen that get better, and also, even though his numbers don’t say it, his at-bats have been a lot better, they really have. And the other day, after missing a couple of days, I thought he had a really good day at the plate. He hit three balls pretty good, got a couple hits, and for me it was more effortless, his at-bats the other day, and I’m going to talk to him today about that, just a lot more — less effort, talking about him jumping at the ball, just staying back, using your hands a little bit, and just trying to hit the ball up the middle.
“I had the same conversation with [Kyle] Schwarber when we moved him to leadoff, just try to hit singles, and I told [Kieboom] yesterday, and he had a good day, so I’m going to reiterate that to him, just go up there and just try to hit singles and get on base and good things will happen.”
Kieboom told reporters in early August that the support he’d received from the organization as he’s struggled since first coming up, and as he’s failed to take advantage of the multiple opportunities he’s received over the last few years, has meant a lot to him.
“It’s huge,” he said. “As a player, you just want the support. They all understand that this game is tough and everybody goes through struggles at times, and it’s never — it’s kind of unfortunate that it was when I was first starting to come up here that I struggled, so it made it a little more difficult, but I will always appreciate the Nationals for how they stuck with me throughout that process and gave me another opportunity, so that’s huge and I’ll be grateful for that forever.”
With the organization working to get back to contending though, the time to prove he’s part of the future in the nation’s capital is now.
“I think he’s shown flashes offensively of a power stroke, he knows the strike zone very, very well,” GM Mike Rizzo said over the final weekend of the 2021 campaign. “It’s a matter with him of making adjustments. He started off with six quick home runs, and the league made an adjustment with him, now it’s time for him to make adjustments to the league, and the great ones do it, and the average ones don’t.
“The jury is still out if he can make those adjustments, but he’s got the skill set and the tools to be a really good player in the big leagues, and again, we just have to have patience with a player who was a high school draft [pick] that takes a little bit longer to develop.”
“Adjusting to a new position,” Rizzo said of the shortstop-turned-third-baseman.
“He’s got to get better ... I’ve seen improvement in his footwork and his throwing motion so let’s see if he takes the next step.”
“We look at the Robleses and the Kiebooms and that type of thing,” Rizzo continued, “... and they’re 24 years old. If they were college draft picks they’d be in Double-A right now, so it’s kind of the way developmentally how I have to think of it, but there’s a time to be patient, and there’s a time to act, and I think that we have to have a good balance of that.”