WASHINGTON -- Trea Turner appeared in all 162 games last season, starting at shortstop for the Nationals in all but four. But the Nats must prepare for life without Turner for an extended period of time after he was officially placed him on the injured list on Wednesday morning with a broken right index finger.
General manager Mike Rizzo declined to reveal a timetable for Turner’s return, offering only that they will have to wait until the bone heals. Adrian Sanchez was promoted from Triple-A Fresno in Turner’s place, giving the Nats more depth in the infield off the bench. Wilmer Difo is expected to get most of the reps as the team’s starting shortstop.
Difo is almost certainly an upgrade defensively. He has played in 72 games at shortstop across four seasons in the Majors and he's racked up 13 defensive runs saved. It helps make up for his light-hitting skills at the plate, and a career 74 OPS+, but when the Nationals' lineup is clicking the way it’s intended, they do not need Difo to do much heavy lifting.
“Defensively, I don't think we're going to miss much,” manager Dave Martinez said. “He's pretty good. Real good at shortstop. For me, it's letting Difo just relax and go play. I want Difo just to be Difo. Not try to do too much. Just go out there and play the game. Play good defense. Get on base and do the little things.”
With Turner out for an extended period of time, the Nationals could have promoted Carter Kieboom, ranked as their No. 2 prospect and MLB Pipeline’s 25th overall, who will begin the season at Fresno. While Rizzo acknowledged Kieboom’s bat was probably Major League ready or close to it, they are still looking for some refinement on defense, especially before asking Kieboom to play such a demanding position.
Kieboom, who had been splitting time between shortstop and second base in the spring, is expected to continue to do so in Triple-A. A year ago in the Minors, he made 26 errors in 118 games at shortstop, and when the Nats pointed to a few mistakes on defense, they wanted him to clean up at the end of Spring Training.
“He needs more reps,” Rizzo said. “It’s an extremely difficult position, probably one of the most difficult positions on the field. It’s a centerpiece defensively. And we want to make sure he’s fully prepared to get to the big leagues. And when he gets to the big leagues, we want him to stay in the big leagues.”
And Rizzo has never been hesitant to promote a young player to the Majors. Take Turner for instance, who reached Super Two status this offseason, granting him an extra year of arbitration, by just two days of service time. Or the decision to call up Juan Soto or start the season with Victor Robles in center field. When Rizzo brings up top prospects to the Majors, he wants them to play. So, when he believes Kieboom can handle playing the position everyday, he will almost certainly bring him to D.C.
“We’re going to see him sooner rather than later,” Rizzo said. “We’re not afraid of timelines. We’re not afraid of putting young players in the big leagues. When we feel he’s ready, we’ll bring him.”
Walk-off hero Noll optioned
Jake Noll was never supposed to be in this spot. He thought he might be one of the first cuts of Spring Training, but he kept hitting, and when injuries opened up an opportunity, he found his way onto the Opening Day roster.
And his brief time in the big leagues will be rewarded with at least one defining moment, as he worked a six-pitch walk in the ninth inning against Phillies reliever David Robertson to drive in the winning run in an unlikely 9-8 victory on Wednesday at Nationals Park. It was Noll’s first Major League RBI, and by the time he reached first base for the first time in his career, his teammates had emptied from the dugout to mob him in celebration and gave him a postgame Gatorade shower.
“It was awesome. That was pretty cool,” Noll said. “First time I got on base as a big leaguer. Great way to do it.”
With Howie Kendrick set to return from the disabled list on Thursday, Noll was optioned to Triple-A Fresno. Noll, a former seventh-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft who put himself on the organization’s radar during the Arizona Fall League, was clearing his locker following his contributions to the victory over the Phils, but he did have a ball from the at-bat to keep and commemorate this moment.
“I couldn't really tell you where the ball came from,” he said. “But I got a ball.”
Kendrick nearing his return
Kendrick remained at the team’s complex at extended spring after camp broke and estimated he played in about five or six games to test out his mild left hamstring strain. He feels good about the number of at-bats he has received and he has tested out his hamstring by running, the final test that let him know he was ready to return, probably against the Mets.
“I feel great,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t be back here if I wasn’t healthy, so I think that’s the biggest thing.”