For the second-straight offseason, the Washington Nationals stood firm in not going out to get an upgrade at third base and giving Carter Kieboom, the team’s former top prospect, every chance to prove that he can man the hot corner every day.
There were rumors that the team looked at the likes of Kris Bryant and Eugenio Suárez, but they clearly believed enough in their young infielder to not pull the trigger on anyone else.
“I’m going to give him every opportunity to go out there and be our third baseman,” manager Dave Martinez said at the start of Spring Training.
“If he’s our third baseman, it’s going to make us a whole lot better.
“I want him to go out there and play like the job is his, and then we’ll go from there. He understands that, he knows that, and we’ll see what happens.”
Since then though, Kieboom has hardly been convincing during Spring Training, slashing .150/.227/.250 in 16 games with 15 strikeouts and just four walks.
They say that Spring Training stats don’t matter and in general, that’s true. But the caveat is that they do matter if you’re fighting for a roster spot, and with the way that he’s looked at the plate, Kieboom might now need to show something in the final week to earn it.
Speculation further intensified as on Tuesday, for the first time this spring, the Nationals started Starlin Castro out at the hot corner to get him some work there.
“We’re going to get [Castro] some work over there,” Martinez said before the game. “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.”
Despite this, the skipper remained coy on whether that decision had anything to do with Kieboom losing grip on the everyday third base job.
“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.”
It’s hard not to take notice of the sudden switch though. Even if it is, as the manager says, just a precaution, the fact these precautions weren’t taken earlier in Spring Training would seem to indicate that something has changed in the Nationals’ thinking.
Martinez constantly talks about taking the best 26 players north with them to Washington and there’s a fair debate to be had as to whether Kieboom is one of those best 26 right now.
But the thing is, the best version of the Nationals in 2021 needs Kieboom to rediscover the form that made him one of the best prospects in the minor leagues.
Over four minor league seasons, Kieboom slashed .287/.378/.469 with 45 home runs and 208 RBIs. In his final minor league season in 2019, admittedly in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he slashed an impressive .303/.409/.493 with 16 long balls and 79 RBIs.
Nobody will deny that the potential to be a potent middle-of-the-order hitter is there.
“When he’s going well, he’s got gap-to-gap power,” Martinez explained. “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 ball us 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.”
For a team that struggled offensively last season, and projects to be a middling offense in 2021, having another potential force in their lineup would be a huge boon to the club.
For as good as Luis García has looked and can be, his ceiling at the plate doesn’t match Kieboom’s.
That’s exactly why they’ve given Kieboom every chance to win an everyday job. In the best scenarios for how the 2021 season plays out, they would involve the young infielder finding his grove at the plate and putting up numbers just as he did in the minor leagues.
After looking like a done deal that Kieboom would be the Opening Day third baseman heading into camp, it’s now up to the Nationals to decide whether to persist with Kieboom through his spring struggles and keep pushing to find that offensive potential, or whether Martinez needs to go another route at the hot corner to start the season.
“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.”