The Nationals are gearing up for Spring Training and rounding out their 2021 roster. The most frequently asked topic for this week’s Inbox was the starting third-base job, and there also was an interest at positions up and down the lineup. With the Nats’ 40-man roster standing at 38, let’s take a look at questions for this season.
Are the Nationals looking for a third baseman or will Carter be the man there?
-- @CedricJenkins5, via Twitter
For the second season in a row, the Nationals are giving Carter Kieboom the opportunity to lock in the starting third-base role.
“I’ve told him, ‘Hey, you’re our future third baseman, and the future is now,’” manager Dave Martinez said in December. “‘So you’ve got to come to Spring Training and be ready to go. The job is yours, but you’ve got to earn it.'"
Last year, Kieboom platooned the hot corner with veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera (a free agent) while he had an up-and-down first full season at the position. Kieboom, who slashed .202/.344/.212 with a 54 OPS+ in 33 games, was assigned to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., for 10 days late in the season. He returned having simplified his approach at the plate.
One key Martinez has identified for the 23-year-old Kieboom in 2021: self-confidence.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this kid,” Martinez said in December. “I think he’s going to be fine, but he’s got to believe that in himself. He’s got to go out there, he’s got to take charge and he’s got to want the job. I’m behind him 100 percent.”
Should Kieboom earn the starting job, the Nationals still will have to address a backup. Utility man Josh Harrison played third for 10 games last season, and he has 1,917 2/3 innings of experience at the position. Washington also has two spots open on its 40-man roster, which it could use to find a backup in free agency or a trade.
Will Max be Max?
-- @dcdavidw, via Twitter
Max Scherzer isn’t ever eager to come off the mound, let alone have his year end after just 12 starts. But that was the case in a shortened 2020 season, in which Scherzer went 5-4 (his 11th consecutive winning record) with a 3.74 ERA.
“I’ve said my body feels like it’s September, but my arm feels like it’s May,” Scherzer said after his last outing on Sept. 26.
Scherzer, 36, isn’t showing signs of slowing down as he enters his 14th season. Mechanically, he noted improvements in his cutter and curveball. On the leaderboards, he moved ahead of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for fifth place in games with 10-plus strikeouts, he passed Frank Tanana for 23rd on the all-time strikeouts list and he became the only starting pitcher in Major League history with a K/9 rate above 10 for nine straight qualified seasons.
This winter, Scherzer got the opportunity for rest he wasn’t afforded after a deep World Series championship run in 2019. When the ‘21 season starts, he will have put in not only physical training, but intellectual work to stay a step ahead of his opponents.
“That’s the fun part of this,” he said at the end of the season. “You got to go back and reinvent yourself, because the rest of the league is going to be finding ways to attack me to be able to do everything they can to beat me. You’ve got to match that type of mentality back at them.”
What should we realistically expect from Victor Robles after a down 2020? His defense needs to be similar to 2019 with Kyle Schwarber in left field and Juan Soto now in right field.
-- @HailToDC, via Twitter
The Nationals are looking for a bounceback season from 2019 Gold Glove Award finalist Victor Robles. The 23-year-old center fielder added 15 pounds last season, and his numbers dropped.
After leading all players with 23 outs above average in ‘19 (155 games), he recorded two in 52 games last season. His burst (a way to measure acceleration, the feet covered in any direction in the second 1.5 seconds) also dipped from 1.2 to 0.1. At the plate, Robles hit .220/.293/.315 with a .608 OPS in 2020, compared to .255/.326/.419 with a .745 OPS the previous year.
Looking for improvements in 2021, the Nationals tasked Robles with focusing on his speed and agility this offseason. He got in extra reps while playing winter ball for Águilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican Republic.
“At his age, I don’t see [him] regressing that quickly,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in December. “I’m going to put a little bit on preparation, as far as the game plan going into the season. I think the COVID stop-and-go had a lot to do with how he came into camp. Believe me when I say that it’s been a conversation that we’ve had with our strength-and-conditioning coordinator, our manager and our center fielder on several occasions.”