Last season could have gone smoother for Carter Kieboom. He could have had fewer ups and downs, less of a learning curve and fewer injuries. He could have made an easier transition from being the Nationals’ top prospect to a starter and sailed through his first year at third base.
But that didn’t happen, and Kieboom thinks it’s better that way.
“There was a lot of failure,” Kieboom said on Wednesday. “Nobody likes to fail, but I think that was the biggest thing that helped me out.”
Kieboom was given the opportunity to earn the Nationals’ starting job on the hot corner last Spring Training, and he ended up platooning the position with veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera. Kieboom slashed .202/.344/.212 with a .556 OPS and 54 OPS+, and he recorded 20 hits and nine RBIs without a home run across 122 plate appearances. Between injuries (left hand, groin) and time at the club’s alternate training site, he appeared in 33 games.
“For me, the approach was there. I felt like I had a good idea what I was doing at the plate,” Kieboom said. “The common theme was just missing stuff -- missing pitches, fouling off too much stuff and not taking advantage of the cookie when it was given.”
Kieboom’s offseason plan was the same as last year -- prepare to be the starting third baseman, a role that manager Dave Martinez said in December was Kieboom’s to earn once again. Kieboom started off by healing the bone contusion he sustained after being hit by a pitch on his left hand in late September. Then he worked on fine-tuning his swing -- which included adjusting posture to eliminate sudden, late movements -- and simplifying his approach.
“It wasn’t this loose, free feeling at the plate,” he explained. “It felt very tied up at times, and that’s not a feeling I used to have -- that I’ve ever had until really last year. … I’ve just kind of evolved into something that’s really close to my body over four or five months. Those first few weeks of moving your hands back just felt a little odd at first. But now it feels great, and it’s exactly the kind of feel I always remember having.”
As a first-year third baseman, Kieboom posted a .966 fielding percentage in 255 2/3 innings. Last season, he had the veteran Cabrera as a mentor to help guide him through the position. This season, he noted he can seek advice from utility player Josh Harrison, as well as infielders Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Bell, Adrián Sanchez and Jordy Mercer in Spring Training.
“I think third base is an awesome position,” Kieboom reiterated. “Any time you can stay in the infield, that’s awesome. I like to be [involved] in every pitch. I always loved catching growing up as a kid because you're involved in every pitch, and the infield is the next closest thing to that for me.”
The spotlight that was on Kieboom in 2020 will remain shining on him in '21, but the self-described “even-keeled” 23-year-old doesn’t feel pressure to prove himself. He understands the magnified view of a Major Leaguer, and his goal is to continue learning from what didn’t go his way last season rather than letting it define him this year.
“Especially when you're being scrutinized, especially when you're in the big leagues, it’s highlighted, it's emphasized a lot more,” Kieboom said. “The best way to go about it for me is just, 'Every day is a new day.' There are new opportunities. There's a new time to have success. So, for me, it's just another day and it's another opportunity to play third base in the big leagues.”