Top prospect Kieboom set for shot at hot corner

January 24th, 2020

WASHINGTON -- When  heads to Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Fla., it'll be a bit of a changed Kieboom from years past. His big league debut -- a loud one at that -- is behind him. So are his first big league struggles. And he’s 10-15 pounds heavier, he estimated.

“I'm not even kidding," Kieboom said at Winterfest on Jan. 11. "This is the best I've ever felt."

But there will also be some peculiar similarities from previous seasons. Not one is more important than the fact that Kieboom will be trying to break the Opening Day roster by learning a new position for the second Spring Training in as many years.

With the departure of Anthony Rendon, coupled with the decision by Josh Donaldson to sign with Minnesota, the Nationals are looking for someone to fill a large gap at third base. There is no proven everyday third baseman on the roster, but the club still feels the position is not actually a hole.

“We see it as a strength,” general manager Mike Rizzo said.

And that’s because Kieboom, who was drafted as a shortstop before learning second base last spring, is making every effort to become it.

“I grew up playing a lot of third base,” said Kieboom, Washington's top prospect according to MLB Pipeline. “Obviously, at the professional level, I dont have a lot of reps at third base, as well as second base. … But I really feel comfortable at both of them. ... Third base is something I'm really looking forward to giving a shot.”

“He’s going to get a shot,” manager Dave Martinez affirmed during a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio, his first public comments since the Winter Meetings. “He’s going to play third base at Spring Training, and I’m looking forward to watching him play over there every day. He’s got a bright future, I’ve said that before. He’s matured a lot.”

Getting a shot is step one. Kieboom must show the club that he has the makeup to not just play defense at the Major League level, but do so in a position that both he and the club admit is a work in progress.

Ambivalence exists because Kieboom struggled defensively in 2019. The '16 first-round MLB Draft pick played 82 2/3 innings at third base for his first professional experience at the position last season, committing four errors. For comparison's sake, Kieboom played 508 1/3 innings at his natural shortstop and committed six errors.

His MLB debut, which came filling in at shortstop for an injured Trea Turner, showcased more room for improvement. Kieboom admitted the game sped up on him, committing four errors in 90 innings during his first taste of big league action.

Tim Bogar, the Nats’ bench coach and infield coordinator, remains unfazed by the results in a limited sample.

“He’s a very athletic kid, so being able to move around the infield isn’t going to be an issue,” Bogar said. “It’s just teaching him the little finer points of it all. … Obviously, he picked up second base pretty quick and he’s still a gifted shortstop. We’re blessed with a good, young athlete.”

“Kieboom is unproven there at the big league level," Rizzo added, "but he is a competent shortstop, and we feel comfortable from what we have seen at the Minor Leagues at third and at second from him."

That Kieboom is in the Nationals’ plans for 2020 is no surprise, though a few months ago it seemed as if he would take over at second base. Things changed quickly when Rendon elected to sign with the Angels for seven years. And even more so as a Donaldson signing was becoming less likely by the day.

But the Nationals kicked into gear a contingency plan that featured signing Asdrúbal Cabrera and Starlin Castro to one- and two-year deals, respectively. Both can play third (Castro also appeared at the hot corner for the first time in 2019) and can provide coverage should the Kieboom experiment get off to a rough start. Neither Cabrera nor Castro appear to be the primary plan, however.

“[Starlin is] actually a really good second baseman, and I’d like to keep him at second,” Martinez said. “For me, that would put Cabrera and Carter at third base.”

There is little doubt around the organization that Kieboom is Major League ready with the bat -- or at least close to it. Though his debut last year left much to be desired -- he finished with a .128/.209/.282 slash line with two homers in 43 plate appearances -- those numbers jumped to .303/.409/.493 with 16 homers in 109 games at Triple-A Fresno.

Kieboom was sent down shortly before Turner’s return, not with a bad taste in his mouth nor discouragement, but lessons for his next go-around. Sure, he would have loved to stick around for the World Series run. Who wouldn’t? But playing in the big leagues at 21 years old and feeling like he showed his maturity and raw skill set to the people he needed to was perhaps more than he could have hoped for in 2019.

“A 21-year-old in the big leagues and then in Triple-A all season -- that doesn’t happen very often,” Rizzo said. “We feel good about where he’s at, and we still think he’s an everyday player in the big leagues that can hit in the middle of the lineup and be a good big league player for many years to come.”

So what will it take for Kieboom to prove to the Nats' brass that he’s ready for the challenge in 2020? That’s a checklist Rizzo is keeping close to his chest, saying in December, “If I feel he’s ready to make the club and make an impact on the club, he’ll certainly get an opportunity.”

For his part, Kieboom believes he can play third base -- all part of the drive and maturity that people say has gotten him to this point at 22. And he believes the time to start is Opening Day 2020.

“As ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said. “ ... I feel very comfortable at all of [the positions], I really do. I mean that when I say it -- and I’m pretty honest.”