Infielder Carter Kieboom, 22, is the Washington Nationals top prospect, but his future with the team is an enigma. The organization’s long-term projection of their 2016 first-round draft selection will dictate the team’s infield future.
After losing Anthony Rendon, a finalist for the National League Most Valuable Player Award last season, to the Los Angeles Angels in free agency, the defending World Series champions are on the hunt for infielders, especially with just two players from their 2019 postseason infield rotation present: Trea Turner and Howie Kendrick.
The recurring name that keeps circulating is third baseman Josh Donaldson, who’s coming off a bounce-back season with the Atlanta Braves where he hit 37 home runs and posted a .900 OPS. Outside of the 2015 American League MVP, there aren’t any prominent corner infielders on the open market.
The Nationals also likely aren’t going to pony up the assets deemed necessary to acquire Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant. According to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, the Chicago Cubs would want Nationals 22-year-old center fielder Victor Robles for Bryant. When the Nationals inevitably refuse to trade Robles, the Cubs would likely counter with wanting Kieboom.
Kieboom is a natural shortstop, but chances are he never starts on a consistent basis at the position given Turner’s presence.
Kieboom played 11 games in the big leagues last season, which doesn’t carry much weight even if he tore the cover off the ball. On the other hand, he raked in Triple A. He hit .303, posted a .902 OPS, and totaled 16 home runs and 79 RBIs across 109 games.
However, Kieboom’s defensive splits are what speaks volumes. Last season he played shortstop in his brief time with the Nationals because Turner, their starting shortstop, was on the injured list with a broken finger. Meanwhile, Kieboom made 62 appearances at shortstop, 41 at second base, and 10 at third base in Triple A.
The Nationals playing Kieboom around the diamond shows they’re looking into the possibility of him starting elsewhere down the road. It wouldn’t be the first time they embarked on such a journey.
In his first two seasons with the Nationals, Rendon, a natural third baseman, played a lot of second base due to Ryan Zimmerman still manning the hot corner, when healthy. For the bulk of his time with the club in 2016, Turner played center field because the Nationals wanted to keep Danny Espinosa‘s defense on the field.
The Nationals have a knack for developing position players. Rendon, Turner, Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, and Robles (potentially) are the recent examples. Their confidence in doing so is largely why they seem to value starting pitching over everyday players. Case in point: they’ve signed Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez to a combined $614 million this decade. And, well, they won the World Series last season, so it works, right?
There’s no reason to think they can’t groom Kieboom into a reliable everyday player at a different position. If he lives up to the hype at the plate and becomes accustomed to playing either second or third base it would be a godsend for general manager Mike Rizzo. He could commit to short-term deals around the diamond, as the Nationals are potentially in need of an everyday first, second, and third baseman.
However, this is all dependent on projection.
It’s a risk to rely on Kieboom blossoming into a fixture at a position he hasn’t played for a full season. They better be right. On the other hand, signing stopgaps or one-year fill-ins give the Nationals future flexibility.
That money could be allocated towards re-signing Scherzer after the 2021 season and Turner the following offseason. Perhaps they throw their hat into the ring for top-tier free agents such as Mookie Betts, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, and DJ LeMahieu next winter.
There’s no replacing Rendon for the Nationals. He’s one of the best players in the sport, and there’s no outside option that matches his value from a production and franchise image perspective for the Nationals. There was never a transparent succession plan in place for Rendon, unlike Harper where the Nationals had Soto and Robles waiting in the wings.
This predicament involved playing someone out of position, which is what they did with Kieboom last season in Triple A; roughly 47 percent of his starting reps came outside of his primary position. The fact that the Nationals haven’t traded a player who’s blocked from playing his natural position at the big-league level shows they think Kieboom has a future with them at some position.
If the Nationals back up the truck for Donaldson — which it has been reported on multiple occasions they’re willing to do, but it’s yet to actually happen — it shows they project Kieboom as a second baseman. If they don’t, it could mean Kieboom’s future is at the hot corner.
Based on how they have the money to keep their core intact moving forward, it seems likely that the Nationals pay up to re-sign Turner when the time comes, keeping him at shortstop. They didn’t re-sign Harper and Rendon. Are they literally going to never re-sign a preeminent position player?
Kieboom’s time to shine with the Nationals is on the horizon. It’s a matter of where he’ll be doing it. That internal verdict affects the rest of the team’s infield.