Welcome back to another year of Minor League Monday, our weekly post about the goings on in the Nationals organization beyond South Capitol Street. Sometimes, we’ll look at one player on the rise. Other weeks, we’ll give you a roundup of the need-to-know details from the Nationals’ top prospects. Check back every Monday for updates, as you’ll find them here.
As the Nationals were scoring 23 runs on 23 hits Sunday afternoon, the Class A Hagerstown Suns were doing them one better. Instead of 23 hits, they posted 30, a South Atlantic League record that helped them score 22 runs in a romp of the Lexington Legends. Carter Kieboom played the part of Anthony Rendon, compiling five hits — three of them homers — on his way to one of the best offensive days of his young professional career. Kieboom is hitting .333 with a .993 OPS that ranks third in the South Atlantic League.
“I’m thrilled with how it’s gone. I couldn’t ask for anything more right now,” Kieboom said in late April, long before his three-home run outburst. “It’s always nice to get off to a hot start. Now, it makes things easier. You can relax a little bit more. You don’t have to press and stuff like that.”
At the lower levels of the minor leagues, not all players look comfortable with the non-baseball aspects of their job. Media attention, for example, can be some combination of intimidating and uncomfortable to those not used to it. But a few questions did not faze Kieboom, who answered them as his Class A Hagerstown teammates filed out of the visitors’ dugout at First Energy Field in Lakewood, N.J. one day two weeks back.
Kieboom, a 19-year-old shortstop, was the Nationals’ first pick in the 2016 draft. He went 28th overall, a slot ahead of right-hander Dane Dunning, who they traded to the White Sox in the Adam Eaton trade. The Nationals have made 17 first-round picks since moving to D.C. in 2005. Seven are still in the system. Four of those players — Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon — are in the majors. That leaves Kieboom, Erick Fedde and Brian Goodwin as the only first-round picks in the Nationals’ system. The title comes with unavoidable pressure, pressure Kieboom seems to be shouldering well as he begins his first full season in pro ball.
“I feel like I’ve had a great transition coming in from high school and going through the [Gulf Coast League] and rookie ball. Then having my first spring training, and also offseason with my brother, which was very beneficial for me just because he’s done it for five, six years now.”
The brother to which Kieboom referred is Spencer Kieboom, a catcher in the Nationals’ system who made his major league debut in September of last year after Wilson Ramos’s knee injury. Kieboom, 26, played baseball at Clemson before the Nationals drafted him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. His younger brother, Carter, skipped college and jumped straight to the pros. Their brother Trevor also played baseball before injuries derailed his playing career. He is now an agent for CSE, the firm that represents his brothers.
“I’ve seen both sides of it. I’ve seen one brother have tons of success — and they’ve both had tons of success — but I’ve seen one play pro ball and one be down on himself and how he’s overcome it,” Carter said. “So it’s been very beneficial to have both my brothers around and watch them go about their business.”
The younger Kieboom worked out in Georgia with his older brother and big leaguers such as Charlie Blackmon and Josh Rutledge. He spent the last half of the 2016 season in rookie ball, where he hit .244 in 36 games. The Nationals, he said, did not overload him with information during his first half season. They left his swing alone, for the most part. They let him play defense his way, while tweaking his throwing habits somewhat for the professional game. He entered this year after a full spring training in the system, aware of the growing chasm between his professional experience and the one he was having this time last year in high school ball — but not intimidated by it.
“Everyone at this point is here for one goal, and that’s to make it to the big leagues. Everyone’s fighting for that same job,” Kieboom said. “There’s definitely a lot more failure at this level than there is at other levels, so it’s really just handling your emotions.”
For now, Kieboom is one of many young talents on a loaded Hagerstown roster than includes meteoric riser Juan Soto (hitting .361) and less-heralded, still promising recent draftees Daniel Johnson, Nick Banks and Sheldon Neuse. MLB.com rates Kieboom as the Nationals’ third-best prospect behind Victor Robles and Fedde. It’s an impressive rating in a system in which many of the top-rated prospects departed last winter, but is loading up at the lower levels for the distant future. If there is pressure that comes with being on the radar like he is, Kieboom seems unfazed so far.
“From Day One, my brother Spencer told me — just play your game. Be who you are. Don’t try to be someone you’re not,” Kieboom said. “If you trust who you are, you’re going to go far.”
The top-rated prospect in the Nationals system, Victor Robles, has been on the Class A Potomac Nationals’ disabled list since mid-April with a hamstring strain. Robles has been working out at the Nationals’ complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the past week, and the current plan is for the 19-year-old to return to P-Nats action soon. Robles was hitting .333 with a .994 OPS at the time of his injury.