At the start of baseball’s offseason, the Washington Nationals agenda seemed clear cut: address the Bryce Harper situation, strengthen the bullpen, add either a front-line or depth starter to the rotation and upgrade at catcher and second base.
But Mike Rizzo already has cut that list, the Nationals general manager saying he is comfortable with what the team currently has on their roster at the position — a likely platoon of veteran Howie Kendrick and utility infielder Wilmer Difo — and that the organization is already developing prospects to potentially play there in the future.
“We like our situation in the middle of the infield with Trea [Turner] and Howie and Difo and [Carter] Kieboom in the wings. We got [Luis] Garcia in the wings that we don’t feel is far away,” Rizzo said last week at baseball’s general managers' meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. “We like our depth there; we really like the ability level there.
"We’ve got some extreme high-ceiling players that we think are going to be really good performers for us, and we got several of them. So I think that it’s not a necessity for us, or a need for us. It would have to be something that we thought was a good value to us.”
That does not leave out the possibility of Rizzo looking at a second baseman in the free agent market this winter, but it does mean the team no longer views the position as a pressing problem heading into 2019. Kendrick, a 35-year-old with a .291 career batting average, missed nearly all of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon and will be back for the final year of his contract with the Nationals. Difo, a 26-year-old who can play both shortstop and second base, has moonlighted as an everyday player but mostly stayed in a utility role throughout his two full major league seasons. Then there is Kieboom and Garcia, two of the Nationals' brightest prospects, whom Rizzo thinks could easily make the transition from shortstop (their natural position) to second base.
Kieboom is 21 years old, was named the Nationals' minor league player of the year for 2018, shined in the Arizona Fall League in October and should start next season with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators before having a chance to climb through the system. Rizzo said Wednesday that he expects Kieboom to make his major league debut at some point in 2019. Garcia is a bit behind Kieboom from a development standpoint; the 18-year-old spent the season navigating the two levels of Class A and will likely spend all of this coming season in the minors.
But that is what everyone thought outfielder Juan Soto would do at this time last year, and now he could win National League rookie of the year Monday. That is not to say that Kieboom or Garcia will have the kind of historic success that Soto did at 19 years old, but it is worth noting that Rizzo does not shy away from giving players a chance at a very young age. So Kieboom and/or Garcia could get a chance at second base in the not-so-distant future, with Kendrick and Difo likely holding down the spot in the meantime.
“We like guys who can play shortstop because we feel it’s an easier transition to move off of short,” Rizzo said last week. “So we feel that [Kieboom] can handle the position at the major league level, but he and Garcia are both going to handle the switch to second base, or to third base, we think seamlessly.”
By mentioning both second and third base as possibilities for Kieboom and Garcia, Rizzo made one thing clear: The Nationals have no immediate intentions of moving Turner, their 25-year-old shortstop who finished 2018 with career-highs in home runs (19) and RBI (73) and led the NL in stolen bases (43) while appearing in all 162 games of the regular season. Third base is only in the conversation because Anthony Rendon is not signed past 2019, but it is likely he inks a long-term deal to lock down that position for the foreseeable future.
That leaves second base as a short- and long-term need for the Nationals, and Rizzo acknowledged that someone will need to shift positions to make their plans work.
Should the Nationals dip into free agency for a second baseman — though they seem way more likely to spend on a starting pitcher and a catcher — options include D.J. LeMahieu, Jed Lowrie, Josh Harrison, Brian Dozier and Marwin Gonzalez. The switch-hitting Gonzalez could make a lot of sense, since he plays multiple positions, and could also give the Nationals a left-handed option behind Ryan Zimmerman at first base.
Yet it seems more probable, based on Rizzo’s assessment of what the Nationals already have, that they stand pat at second and use their resources elsewhere. Kendrick provides a veteran right-handed bat, and the switch-hitting Difo has given the Nationals bursts of energy, and even some power, when given the opportunity. Difo will need to clean up mental mistakes in the field and on the base paths and cut down on his strikeouts at the plate if a pairing of him and Kendrick is going to work. If it does, at least well enough for the Nationals to hold off on seeking a multiyear solution from outside the organization, it would seem that Kieboom will get the first crack at making the position his down the road.
Rizzo is quick to note that the Nationals still see Kieboom as a shortstop, but that does not discount him as an option at second base. Kieboom played second in this year’s Arizona Fall League and was named an all star. He has plans to work with current and former major league second basemen this offseason to refine his footwork around the bag while turning double plays. He is the team’s next big-time prospect in line to make his debut, following the recent promotions of Soto, Victor Robles and starting pitcher Erick Fedde, and Kieboom’s development has the Nationals seeing promise where others may see a need.
“I think he’s going to take to it very, very smoothly. He’s an athlete, he’s a baseball guy, he’s got an extremely high IQ, and I don’t see that being an issue whatsoever, the transition from shortstop to second base,” Rizzo said of Kieboom. “We still think of him as a shortstop, we believe that he’s an everyday major league shortstop and think he can handle that position. But we got a pretty damn good one right now and he’s not going anywhere for a while.”
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