The Trickle-Down Effect of No Carter Kieboom for the Nationals

kieboom
Carter Kieboom looks to shore up his play at the hot corner and at the plate; otherwise the Nationals will have to get creative. (Photo: Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Anthony Rendon is gone, and that leaves a gaping hole at the hot corner for the defending World Series champions. As I mentioned in my Spring Training primer, the ideal scenario was for top prospect Carter Kieboom to take over the starting job. Whether it was his job to lose or if it was simply his to compete for has come into question recently, but either way, Kieboom starting early in 2020 was undeniably the organization’s preference. If it wasn’t, they would’ve pursued a third baseman — Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, Eduardo Escobar; the list goes on — much more seriously this offseason.

As time passes, it looks increasingly likely that Kieboom starts the season in the minor leagues. There’s still a chance that he wins the third base job, but he hasn’t done himself any favors offensively — he was 1–12 (.083 average) this spring before going 2–2 off the bench yesterday — or defensively — he has two errors (and a third that could’ve gone against him) on only 13 official chances. Nonetheless, he still has a chance to improve before Opening Day — and get off the bench. For the sake of this exercise, however, I’ll assume he doesn’t crack the initial 26-man roster.

Who could replace Kieboom on the Opening Day roster, and how might that impact who plays at third base?

The Numbers Game

The rest of Spring Training could cause the numbers to be slightly tweaked, but the general rule of thumb would be for the team to carry 13 pitchers and 13 hitters. Generally, the position player breakdown includes two catchers, with either seven infielders and four outfielders or six infielders and five outfielders. Just like last year, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki appear to clearly be the two — and only two — catchers that will make the roster.

So what about the rest? Ten of the remaining 11 spots seem like near certainties:

Infield: Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman

Outfield: Adam Eaton, Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Michael A. Taylor

The last spot is what Kieboom impacts — in more ways than one. The best way to answer who fills the void is to lay out who should play which positions — and how frequently they should be there.

Shortstop

This is the easy one. Trea Turner will undoubtedly be the starting shortstop and start almost every game, barring injury. The backup role is somewhat in question, but out of the primary six infielders, the best option seems to be Asdrubal Cabrera.

First Base

My opinion somewhat differs from those of other people. On paper, there’s no reason why Eric Thames (left-handed) and Ryan Zimmerman (righty) couldn’t make a perfect platoon pairing and play every game at first base. The only wild card in this discussion should be health — especially since Zimmerman has struggled in that regard for the last half decade-plus. But strictly in terms of planning for the start of the season, Thames and Zimmerman are the only players who should be in the first base mix.

Second Base

Because of my view of first base, Howie Kendrick becomes a “temporary full-time” second baseman. After all, the postseason seemed to indicate that the Nationals are fairly comfortable with playing Kendrick at second. I’d operate under the assumption that he is the Opening Day starter, and he should start the majority of the team’s games at this position.

That leaves Starlin Castro in limbo. He’s worthy of everyday — or close to it — playing time, but there’s no room for him at his primary position — again, assuming injuries don’t come into play. That means he’ll have to play another position, and I doubt it’s shortstop — he started there for the first six years of his career, but with diminishing results.

Third Base

This is where Kieboom was supposed to play, which makes it the position most directly affected. Cabrera has always been the backup plan — and he will likely get a favorable split of reps if Kieboom is out of the mix — but there still has to be another body to play the hot corner from time to time.

That’s where Castro lands back on his feet. Although he never played third base until last season — and even that was only for parts of 45 games — the returns were surprisingly positive. In 366 2/3 innings, he was “+1” in defensive runs saved (DRS) and “+0.5” in ultimate zone runs (UZR), making him a slightly above-average fielder at the position — albeit in a small sample size.

Here’s the catch: the Nationals have yet to give him any in-game work at third base. I can’t speak to what they’ve done at practices, but reports — and word of mouth from  Dave Martinez — indicate that the team has prioritized second base for him, with third base as merely an added bonus. Particularly without Kieboom, that would need to change.

26th Man

Who makes the roster partially depends on how comfortable the team feels with the primary six infielders. If Martinez and Mike Rizzo believe those players can handle the necessary reps — whether that’s for a month or the bulk of the 2020 season — they can turn to Andrew Stevenson as a fifth outfielder. After all, he jumped Michael A. Taylor on the depth chart for much of 2019. He’s a solid defender at all three outfield positions, his speed on the base paths makes him a pinch-running candidate, and he was an extraordinary pinch hitter last season.

On the other hand, Stevenson has a minor league option at his disposal, whereas infielder Wilmer Difo does not. Here were my thoughts on this battle from my most recent article:

“Based on what portions of games he’s playing in, where in the lineup he’s batting when he starts games and productivity, [Difo] seems to be ahead of Adrian Sanchez his top competitor who, like him, is out of minor league options.

As long as he and Andrew Stevenson appear similarly viable as big league players, Difo likely wins because Stevenson can be sent to the minors at no cost.”

Side note: RosterResource indicates that Sanchez is out of minor league options, but Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post has clarified that this is an error. This has no impact on my analysis of Difo vs. Stevenson, but it does create separation between the two of them and Sanchez.

The organization would prefer to see improvements from Difo in Spring Training compared to his 2019 performance — there’s a reason why he spent much of the season in AAA Fresno — but as long as he brings some value — even if it’s only as a pinch runner or defensive substitution, which is likely considering the less-than-stellar runners and fielders the Nationals have across most of the infield — he should make the initial roster if Kieboom doesn’t, leaving Stevenson on the “Harrisburg-to-D.C. shuttle” much like 2019.

Lineup

The batting order was already a work in progress, but the absence of Kieboom would also create some more possibilities — not necessarily good or bad, just different. I made some notes on the top of the lineup in a past article, so here are relevant updates:

  1. In every game Victor Robles and/or Turner have played, one of them has hit leadoff.
    • Robles has batted first in all three games he’s played, including the Feb. 22 rainout.
    • Turner has led off six times and hit third on Feb. 26 — Robles was the leadoff hitter.
    • Adam Eaton has led the pack four times, including three of the last six games.
      • Since Feb. 26, the team has alternated Eaton and Turner at the top of the order — Robles has been sidelined with an oblique injury.
      • Eaton has batted second twice, in addition to doing so in the rained-out game.
    • Thames hit leadoff on Feb. 25 — in a weird lineup, clearly constructed to get key players at bats early.
      • He has also been held out of games for much of the spring — he’s only played two times — so his evaluation is incomplete.
  2. Juan Soto has batted third six times, while only hitting cleanup — his old spot — twice, most recently yesterday.
    • Cabrera has batted second four times, as well as third and sixth one time each.
    • After a late start to his spring, Zimmerman has slid into the second spot twice and the five hole once.
    • Castro has hit third in four games and fourth once.
    • Kendrick has been the cleanup hitter in six of his starts — and fifth the only other time he played.
    • In addition to his leadoff appearance, Thames has hit fourth (unofficially) and fifth once each.
  3. Tuesday’s lineup featured the most everyday players of any game so far this spring, and the order was as follows:
    • Turner, Eaton, Castro (2B), Soto, Kendrick (DH), Cabrera (3B), Suzuki, Taylor, Jake Noll (1B)
      • The opposing starting pitcher was left handed, which partially explains why Thames didn’t play — although it may also still be injury-related.
      • The designated hitter complicates matters a bit, but Noll typically wouldn’t play — and is a long shot to even make the roster.
      • Robles is the ultimate wild card, but directly subbing him in Taylor’s spot — or flipping him ahead of Suzuki, or theoretically Gomes — isn’t unreasonable. In fact, those were his most standard roles last season.
      • Zimmerman played back-to-back games over the weekend — and three of the last four overall — so Martinez likely sat him ahead of today’s off day to give him an extended break.
      • As alluded to previously, Kieboom entered the game off the bench — which may not seem significant, but players who do so at this stage in the spring are almost always viewed as either backups or minor leaguers.

As tempted as I am to say that the possibility of Thames and Robles starting the season on the injured list shouldn’t be ignored, I think it’s extremely unlikely that they do. Per Pete Kernel of MASN Sports, Martinez believes that they could both return to live action this weekend.

Eaton also exited yesterday’s game with hamstring tightness, but reports indicate that he shouldn’t have an extended absence either, and he is listed as day-to-day.

That Other Guy

I’ve been as impressed with Luis Garcia as anyone, but I still believe he has virtually no chance of making the Opening Day roster. My previous thoughts still stand.

“In many respects, he appears to be in the early stages of a Spring Training much like the one Wilmer Difo had in 2015 which astoundingly happened after he spent 2014 in Low-A Hagerstown. That spring led to Difo being promoted from the minors on multiple occasions in 2015 although he played sparingly for Washington that year.

Unless he gets promoted in September, Garcia probably won’t play for the Nationals in 2020. Nonetheless, Difo serves as a solid blueprint for how he could force the team’s hand. Crazier things have happened.”

Even aside from the argument of him making the team, I also believe he’s such a polished defender in the middle of the infield — in spite of his youth — that even if he was promoted to the big leagues, it would be to play second base (or shortstop, if Turner was sidelined) with some of Kendrick or Castro’s reps shifting to third base if needed.

My Early Predictions

There’s not much of a reason to make predictions this early in Spring Training, but I’ve done it for pitchers, so here goes nothing!

Vs. right-handed pitcher:

  1. SS Trea Turner
  2. RF Adam Eaton
  3. 2B Starlin Castro or Howie Kendrick
  4. LF Juan Soto
  5. 3B Asdrubal Cabrera or Kendrick (2B)
  6. 1B Eric Thames
  7. CF Victor Robles
  8. C Kurt Suzuki or Yan Gomes
  9. Pitcher

Vs. left-handed pitcher:

  1. Turner
  2. Eaton
  3. Castro (3B)
  4. Soto
  5. Kendrick
  6. 1B Ryan Zimmerman
  7. Robles
  8. Suzuki/Gomes
  9. Pitcher

Bench: Wilmer Difo and Michael A. Taylor

This requires some clarifying on my end. I don’t think Castro, Kendrick, or Cabrera will play every day; they’ll likely all start somewhere between half and three-fourths of the team’s games. Since they’re right-handed, Castro (3B) and Kendrick (2B) will always play against left-handed pitchers, while one of them will play second base — with Cabrera at third — against righties.

When Thames plays, I believe he has to bat sixth for the sake of lineup balance — I think having back-to-back left-handed hitters should be avoided. Kendrick has excelled while hitting after Soto, so my preference is to keep it that way, but when Castro is out of the lineup, I don’t think there is a viable No. 3 hitter other than Kendrick.

With my luck, Kieboom will make the team and none of this will matter — and I’d also have to completely re-think lineup options, because I can’t envision Robles or Kieboom batting fifth whatsoever. But alas, at least I can say I tried!

Now back to the games. Here’s the upcoming slate:

  • Thursday: vs. Cardinals (6:05 p.m., MASN/MLBN)
  • Friday: at Marlins (7:05 p.m.)
  • Saturday: vs. Marlins (1:05 p.m.) and at Mets (1:10 p.m.)
  • Sunday: vs. Tigers (1:05 p.m.)
  • Monday: off
  • Tuesday: at Marlins (1:05 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, 3/11: at Astros (1:05 p.m.)
  • Thursday, 3/12: at Yankees (1:05 p.m., MASN)
  • Friday, 3/13: vs. Marlins (1:05 p.m.)
  • Saturday, 3/14: at Tigers (1:05 p.m.)

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