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Carter Kieboom’s transition to second base is next stage of his development

Carter Kieboom was drafted as a shortstop but is learning to play second base. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jogging to second base instead of shortstop is starting to feel normal for Carter Kieboom, so much so that he no longer runs through all the details during games.

A few months ago, while he was playing in the Arizona Fall League, Kieboom’s mind filled with whatever he had worked on in drills that day: The new angles. His footwork when turning double plays. How his arm slot lowered for the throw to first base. He was a lifelong shortstop playing second for the first time in close to a decade. It was still baseball — and he always has prided himself as being versatile — but he had to think more than he likes.

Now, a month into his first major league spring training and six months into his education at second, that uneasiness has passed. He made two errors at second against the Houston Astros on Tuesday night to go with two towering home runs. But he feels better equipped to iron out the defensive mistakes.

“I’m not worried about mistakes anymore, because now I know what it feels like to do it right,” Kieboom said before Tuesday’s game, as if he could see the future. “If I do do something wrong, I know exactly how to correct it. That’s ultimately what you want to get to when you’re trying something new.”

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Kieboom, 21, is transitioning to second base with a not-so-distant future in mind. He is Washington’s second-best prospect — if you still count Victor Robles, who could be the Nationals’ Opening Day center fielder — and projects to hit 20 or more home runs as a major league infielder. He crushed those two homers Tuesday off Astros ace Justin Verlander, hitting both through the wind and over the left field fence before walking in his third plate appearance. But Trea Turner, 25, is the Nationals’ everyday shortstop and probably will be for a while, so the Nationals are grooming Kieboom for a shot alongside their franchise shortstop instead of for a shot as that.

They are doing the same with 18-year-old infielder Luis Garcia, a traditional shortstop also who is working out at second this spring. But Kieboom is ahead of Garcia in the system, if only because of age, and should get the first crack at second after Brian Dozier plays out a one-year, $9 million deal. The Nationals are largely encouraged by what they’ve seen from Kieboom at second. He is encouraged by how it has started to feel, even if there were growing pains in a 5-3 exhibition win over the Astros.

“Look, we’re asking him to play second base,” Martinez said after the game. “He played shortstop, he’s really good over there, so this is something new for him, and he’s going to get better at it.”

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If Kieboom is ever looking for reassurance that shortstops can make good second basemen, he doesn’t have to look far. Dozier played shortstop his whole life before then-Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire moved him to second in 2013. Dozier jokes it was because Gardenhire grew tired of watching him throw the ball over the first baseman’s head and into the seats. He figured Gardenhire was only protecting fans.

Dozier was 26, five years older than Kieboom is now, and always will remember what Gardenhire told him at the start of camp.

“Don’t ever take another ball anywhere else,” Dozier remembers Gardenhire saying. “You’re a second baseman now.”

Dozier listened. He has been at second base for the past seven seasons and won a Gold Glove there in 2017. The Nationals hope he provides a big defensive lift at that position. Kieboom’s transition will not be as stark. He has appeared in 12 spring training exhibitions and has been at second in five of them. He is expected to play a lot of shortstop this year — whether he starts with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators or Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies — because Washington wants him to stay polished at his natural position. Shortstops are more valuable. It is easier to flip to second as a shortstop. It is harder to go the opposite direction.

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But he can pump Dozier for advice on switching over. They talked about it while taking ground balls Tuesday, and Dozier told him to simplify as much as he can. Don’t stress over techniques that aren’t comfortable; fine-tune what feels right. Dozier likes to turn double plays from behind second base, while some second basemen like to come through the bag and make throws across their body. Kieboom likes that method, too, yet he still is feeling out the nuances.

“Based on what Brian told me, I need to figure out what works best and just stick to that,” Kieboom said. “It’s a process.”

That was evident during the six innings he played against the Astros. The two home runs will be remembered, especially because they came off Verlander, but Kieboom was a mixed bag defensively. He made a routine play in the first, ranging a few feet to his left and flicking the ball to first in one fluid motion. Next he made an error in the fifth, moving farther to his left before bobbling a low-skipping grounder on the edge of the dirt. Then, in the seventh, he fumbled a should-have-been double play ball right behind second.

On one hand there’s progress. On the other there’s a lot of work to do.

“I’m comfortable. Mistakes happen,” Kieboom said after Tuesday’s game. “I’d rather have mistakes happen now; you get to learn from them now. This is spring training and definitely the place to do it.”

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