On Thursday, the Washington Nationals leaned in and accepted that they're not going to be contending for the playoffs in the 2021 season. Much is going to be made about how the players that the Nats acquired ahead of Friday's deadline are going to impact the roster. While there's about a 100% chance that we're going to see Josiah Gray immediately and a very good chance that Keibert Ruiz sees time in the majors, the players that the Nats acquired aren't the only ones likely to see their fortunes change.
As of right now, the only position player that's been in the lineup recently that's gone is Trea Turner. It seems fairly obvious how the Nats will replace Turner's spot on the field. Alcides Escobar, who has been a nice rehab project over the past month, will slide back over to his natural shortstop position. Luis Garcia figures to benefit by taking over as the starting second baseman.
With several other veterans on expiring deals who have some value such as Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison, the Nats certainly seem unlikely to be finished making moves. The newly acquired Ruiz would likely slide in as the regular starter behind the plate if Gomes is dealt. Perhaps the most maligned prospect in the Nats system would be the likely replacement for Harrison at third base.
Carter Kieboom was considered the Nationals top prospect as recently as last year. His stock would certainly have dropped some, but he had just a few too many plate appearances to qualify as a rookie last year, so he "graduated". Let's take a look at where he was ranked in all of baseball over the past few years:
- Pre-2018: Baseball Prospectus #71, MLB.com #90
- Pre-2019: Baseball Prospectus #16, MLB.com #25, Baseball America #41
- Pre-2020: Baseball Prospectus #11, MLB.com #21, Baseball America #15
Do prospect rankings mean everything? Of course not! They do, however, tell us that many people believed that he had enough about his game so that he had a better than average chance of becoming at least a big league regular. In fact, most prognosticators thought that he had a decent chance of developing into a star. Has it happened yet? No. Will he develop into a star? Probably not. He still profiles as a guy who could emerge as an above average regular, though.
Kieboom first broke into the big leagues in 2019 as a 21-year-old shortstop. He was perhaps rushed a bit, as his first stint in the big leagues occurred when Trea Turner broke his finger trying to bunt on Opening Day. Predictably, Kieboom, who had played just 62 games above A ball, struggled in his first chance in the majors. He struck out in 37.2% of his 43 big league plate appearances as he hit a miserable .128/.209/.282 before heading down to AAA. He looked just fine in Fresno, though, mashing at a .303/.409/.493 clip with 16 HR.
Perhaps 2020 is the reason that many Nats fans seem to have given up on him. Let's face it. 2020 was a weird year for everyone, both in and out of MLB. It was, perhaps, particularly difficult for Kieboom. Anthony Rendon's departure had opened up third base, but Kieboom had a whopping 10 AAA games worth of experience at the hot corner. So, in Kieboom's first chance to really stick as more than an injury replacement, he was playing an unfamiliar position without a full Spring Training to help ease him into it.... and suddenly being a big league regular facing pitchers of a higher quality than he'd ever seen before.
The Nats tried
to exercise some patience with him, but with the burden of being the defending World Series
Champions, Kieboom quickly found his way to the bench on a more regular basis. Admittedly, it is difficult to be patient when a guy is batting .202/.344/.212... yes, he had one
extra base hit in 122 plate appearances: a double on September 8. The 2020 problem was further compounded by the lack of a minor league season that could have allowed him to get regular reps and regain his confidence. He was, after all, still just a 22-year-old kid for most of last year.
With Castro back for the start of this season, the Nats had third base covered and let Kieboom start the year back in AAA*. Kieboom has never really projected as a huge power hitter, but the power did come back some in Rochester, as he hit .236/.376/.385 with 5 HR in 181 plate appearances before missing most of July due to a knee injury. Upon his return, Castro went on disciplinary leave for off field reasons, giving Kieboom the call back to the majors.
*Side note - We're probably going to be seeing a lot of guys for the next 2-3 years that are a year behind on their development because of 2020.
Kieboom's struggles in his two previous stints with the big league club seem to have made the fanbase question whether he could have a future. To be honest, based on the reluctance to give him a real chance at competing for the third base job out of camp over players such as Castro and Harrison, it seems as if the organization has soured on him as well. Let's be fair to Kieboom, though. He's had two stints in the big leagues in which he's accrued a total of 177 plate apperances! That's about a third of a season.
- Kieboom did show an improvement to his strikeout rate in the majors in his second stint, though 27% is still a bit on the high side even if he does start hitting for more power. His strikeout rates in the minors generally fluctuated between 17% and 20%, and the likelihood is that his bat to ball skills will improve in the big leagues as he gets more repetitions.
- One thing that Kieboom has maintained at every level is a fantastic walk rate. Even as he struggled last season, he walked in 13.9% of his plate appearances. In spite of his miserable .212 slugging percentage last season, Kieboom reached base at a .344 clip. The number one thing you want out of your hitters is for them to not make outs.
- The ISO has bounced back in AAA this year towards the .150 mark. He's got above average raw power. He just needs to harness it some. You would like to think that the plus plate discipline could eventually help him in this area as well, provided the strong walk rates are because he's being selective rather than passive.
- The game power that he's shown over the past couple of years just don't really seem to translate for a corner infield bat. It's even a little light in AAA.
- He hasn't really been hitting nearly as well for average in AAA this year as he did in AAA back in 2019. Most of this is BABIP related, but a lot of that could be related to the dropoff in power the past couple of years. If he's focusing too much on playing pepper and making contact, he's not hitting the ball with as much authority.
- The glove continues to be a huge problem. As a middle infielder, where Kieboom had played most of his life, you're worried more about range. At third base, it's more about reaction time. Kieboom often looks a little slow with the reactions and has just never really looked comfortable playing third base. While it's a move down the defensive spectrum, they're still completely different spots to be playing on the diamond.
With the Nationals essentially giving up on the 2021 season at the trade deadline, it's time for them to really evaluate Carter Kieboom. There's still a lot of raw talent here, and he's not going to become a better big league player by going back to AAA. He's also not going to become a better big league player by sitting on the bench so that the Nats can give 34-year-old impending free agents like Josh Harrison (who could play left field if not for) or Gerardo Parra more chances. For the remainder of the 2021 campaign, Carter Kieboom has to be starting every day.
He should have two months to prove that he can handle the big leagues. He should have two months to show the Nats that he's the third baseman of the future. If he doesn't at least show some progress, the Nats should probably move on.
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