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Washington Nationals’ 3B Questions: Who’s going to start the 2021 season at third base?

Starlin Castro is playing third base for the first time this spring, with Carter Kieboom’s struggles at the plate still an issue. You know there was going to be questions...

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

We highlighted a conversation between Davey Martinez and reporters last week in which a couple beat writers covering the Washington Nationals asked about the possibility of either young prospect Luis García or veteran infielder Starlin Castro seeing time at third base this spring, as 2016 1st Round pick, and expected everyday third baseman, Carter Kieboom has continued to struggle at the plate after a tough year in the majors for the 23-year-old in the 60-game 2020 campaign.

Reporter [paraphrasing] - Can Luis García play third base?

Davey Martinez: “That’s a good question. I’m sure he can. Right now I like him at second. So, that’s where he’s going to - he’s going to play second, I know he’s playing shortstop just as an emergency guy just in case something happens, hopefully not, but I mean, he’s a good athlete and he’s got great hands, so I’m sure he can play third base.”

García is not practicing at 3B though?: “No.”

Has Starlin Castro taken any grounders at 3B?: “No, so far it’s just been at second. So far it’s just been at second.” [laughs]

So there’s a chance?: “Maybe.” [laughs]

Houston Astros v Washington Nationals Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Martinez knew what they were getting at, of course.

Less than a week later, Martinez’s lineup for today’s Grapefruit League game against the St. Louis Cardinals was posted and Castro was listed at third base with García at second base.

“We’re going to get [Castro] some work over there,” the manager explained when asked about the lineup in his pregame Zoom call.

“He’s taken some ground balls the last couple days. I told him to let me know when he was ready.

“I talked to him yesterday, and he said he wanted to get over there, so we’re going to take a look at him over there at third base. It doesn’t mean much. As you know, Carter — he’s got to compete, but I want to make sure we cover all our bases, that we get [Castro] over there and see what that looks like.”

With a week left in camp, Kieboom, who has doubled in each of his last two games, is just 6 for 35 (.171/.216/.286) with the two doubles, a triple, two walks, and 11 Ks in 13 games.

Why, with a week left before Opening Day, did the skipper decide to get Castro work over at third base now, when he hadn’t done so previously this spring? Castro played second until a broken wrist ended his season last year, and García at second base, and Kieboom at third.

“Hey look,” Martinez said, “Starlin has played there before. He played 45 games there. He’s comfortable playing over there. So we’re going to let him go over there and see what it looks like. Like I said, we haven’t made any decisions yet on what we want to do, but we need to do it. We’ve got a week. I think it will be adequate.

“Plus, like I said, [Castro’s] taking ground balls there in the morning, along with second base, and then we’ll see what it looks like.”

Kieboom, Martinez stressed, knew coming into camp this year that he was going to have to compete for the job and prove himself after struggling at the plate in his first two stints in a major league environment, and the fourth-year skipper said he still has faith that the kid can get it done.

“Look, like I said, I’m a Carter fan, everybody knows that, you know, but he still has to go out there and do his job, and he knows that,” Martinez said this morning.

“This doesn’t mean anything. Like I said, we just want to see what this looks like right now.

“Carter is going to get an opportunity to play third base, so we’ll see how it looks like, and like I said, this is the last week. We got to hone in on some things. No decisions have been made yet, but we want to make sure that we take the 26 best guys that we could possibly take.”

Martinez said he wants one to go north with one guy that’s going to play every day at third, and right now he and his staff are weighing all their options as Spring Training winds down and the start of the regular season approaches.

St. Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Was there a conversation with Kieboom about the club’s thinking here, so he understands the situation?

“We’ll talk to him,” Martinez said, “but these guys understand it’s about competition and competing. He’s got to come and compete. This doesn’t change anything with him, it doesn’t change the way I feel about him. I’ve always said that he’s a big part of our future here. So he understands that. He’s just got to go out there and compete. I just want him to go out there and relax, compete and have fun. He has been swinging the bat a little bit better, so we just got to — this last week, like I said, I just want to make sure that we’re covering all our bases here, and Starlin does have an opportunity to play some third base.”

With a week left in West Palm Beach, FL, is there something that they could see Kieboom do that would convince them that he’s the guy at the start of the season?

“When it comes to hitting, you can find one or two things that will click right away and next thing you know you’re squaring balls up,” the former big league outfielder turned manager said.

“I was a guy and I always talk about just — I put myself in his shoes when I was younger, and it took me a while to get going. We understand that. I got sent down my first time, and no big deal, but I had to work some things out.

“Once it clicks, and I think this will happen with Carter, because like I’ve said, he had unbelievable success in the minor leagues, and when he’s good he hits the ball really hard, so we want him to get back to that, but we don’t want to put tons of pressure on him either, we want it to come.

“We know what Carter can do when Carter is Carter Kieboom. So, we’re just going to keep an eye on him. Like I said, he’s played out there almost every day this spring, and we’re just going to watch him and see if he progresses.”

Kieboom revamped his swing this winter, had LASIK surgery, he’s shown some signs of progress according to his manager, but they want to see some solid contact that they haven’t necessarily seen this spring.

“When he’s going well, he’s got gap-to-gap power,” Martinez continued. “Which means that — I look at Carter where — I think Carter is a 40 doubles guy, who could hit 15-20 home runs. Without putting numbers on him — but I think that’s the kind of player that you’ll see out of Carter. He squares balls up consistently, and that’s what I’m looking for.

“Even like I said, this is a result-driven game, but I’m looking for guys to hit the ball hard consistently. Taking their walks, which he does.

“But putting the meat of the bat on the ball consistently. I haven’t seen that yet here.

“I know he can do it, I’ve seen it. He’s done it every year in the minor leagues. We’re waiting for that to happen here. When that happens, I think the kid is going to take off.”

While they’re waiting for him to take off, the Nationals are going to look at their options too, which, the manager stressed today, is what’s going on here: Getting Castro reps in case he ends up at third at some point, and seeing what things look like if that’s how they end up.

So is there still a competition going on with one week left before the season opener?

“From Day 1 we’ve always told [Kieboom] — hey, I want him to be the guy, but that’s totally up to him, and he understood that. So, like I said, because Starlin is playing over there, it doesn’t mean that we made any decisions whatsoever. We’ve got a week left, but we wanted to make sure that if something does happen, that we don’t throw Starlin over there on Opening Day and say, ‘Here go get’em.’ I’m not going to do that to him either.”