WASHINGTON -- Hot corner? More like hot topic.
The vacancy at third base is what’ll follow these Nationals during the course of Spring Training at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Despite making noise with its signing of relievers and re-signing of Stephen Strasburg and other members of the World Series squad, Washington’s prominence this offseason was tied mostly with rumors at third base.
Anthony Rendon elected to sign with the Angels. Josh Donaldson, who was then rumored to be his replacement, did the same with the Twins. Any potential trades for Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado or Kyle Seager remain just discussions for armchair GMs on barstools across the D.C. area.
So now the focus turns to Carter Kieboom, the club’s top prospect and No. 20 overall per MLB Pipeline, and Asdrúbal Cabrera, who re-signed to a one-year deal in January. The two enter camp as the likeliest candidates to man the hot corner come Opening Day on March 26 (though other free-agent signings like Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick can man the position in a pinch).
But Kieboom and Cabrera come in with vastly different backgrounds. Kieboom, 22, has just 11 big league games to his name. Most important, however, is that he has zero big league innings at third base and just 82 innings at Triple-A. Cabrera, 34, is a 13-year, six-team veteran off one of the most roller-coaster seasons of his career.
As general manager Mike Rizzo now once infamously characterized the position in January, before Donaldson’s decision: “We don’t see it as a hole. We see it as a strength.”
So, let’s try and find out why -- and who.
Why might Kieboom win the job?
The bat plays, first off.
There’s much to be determined as far as Kieboom’s Major League readiness on the diamond, but his bat certainly has shown the life to carry him into the highest level. Sure, his stint replacing an injured Trea Turner was far from jaw-dropping -- a .128/.209/.282 slash line with two homers in 43 plate appearances -- but in a larger sample size at Triple-A, those numbers became .303/.409/.493 with 16 homers in 494 PAs.
But Kieboom needs to learn the position. Despite saying he played third base growing up, Kieboom made four errors in the 82 innings he played with Fresno last season, just two fewer than he made in 508 1/3 innings at his natural shortstop position.
“He’s going to get a shot,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said during a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio. “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.”
The club believes Kieboom's pure athleticism will suit him well and make him a candidate to start at third base. He said he has put on about 10-15 pounds this offseason, prioritizing how to learn the quirks and speed it requires to play third.
“I think [Kieboom is] very, very close to Major League-ready,” Rizzo said 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.”
Added Kieboom: “As ready as I possibly can be. ... I feel very comfortable at all of [the positions], I really do. I mean that when I say it -- and I’m pretty honest.”
Why might Cabrera?
It’s the low-risk option, especially if spring is shaky for Kieboom.
After Cabrera joined the Nationals as a free-agent signing last August, he drove in 40 runs in just 36 games, thanks in part to a 143 OPS+. He also has a resume that boasts utility. Over his career, Cabrera has played at least 1,200 innings at each infield position except first base, and in 2019, that number was 812 at third. He’s also a switch-hitter, which brings even more flexibility to a Nationals lineup that already has three starters who bat lefty.
Two things are also true: The Nationals want to repeat in 2020, but they also want to develop Kieboom into another franchise cornerstone. If he struggles at third base and there isn’t room for him at another position, they may want to hold off on starting him until they believe he’s fully ready, thus cranking open the door for Cabrera.
What’s going to be the deciding factor(s)?
Common refrains from an individual’s Spring Training -- good or bad -- is that those stats don’t necessarily matter: They’re exhibitions, people are still shaking off rust, it’s a trial period.
That may be true in this case as well; a less-than-stellar spring for Kieboom assuredly won’t result in the club giving up hope in him, and the same for Cabrera won’t necessarily forfeit his playing time.
Instead, the Nationals will be looking for signs that Kieboom has the capability to handle defense at the big league level. If not, signs that Cabrera, who made 122 starts in 2019, can handle the grind on a nightly basis. Signs that yes, in fact, third base can be a strength in '20.
Let the battle begin.