“Next thing you know, I’m here,” Kieboom said at Nationals Park on Friday afternoon, hours before he hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of a 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. “So this is real special.”
That’s how Kieboom went from the Nationals’ top prospect to their starting shortstop of the very near future. But it still leaves a complicated question unanswered.
There are a few layers to pick through here — all largely theoretical and all centered on whatever the Nationals know, believe and probably won’t say publicly. Shortstop Trea Turner broke his right index finger when he was hit by a pitch April 2. He went on the 10-day injured list the next day. Washington recalled utility infielder Adrian Sanchez in Turner’s spot, and when asked then why it wasn’t Kieboom, General Manager Mike Rizzo said the 21-year-old had to improve defensively. The initial time frame for Turner’s return was four to eight weeks, Rizzo revealed Friday afternoon, and the Nationals figured they could use Wilmer Difo as a Band-Aid replacement. Then Kieboom raked in Fresno, hitting .379 with six doubles, three home runs and a .506 on-base percentage in 18 games while Difo struggled as an everyday player.
Then, this week, Washington’s calculus changed.
“We wanted to get [Kieboom] some AAA at-bats under his belt. He’s performed admirably at the AAA level,” Rizzo said Friday of what made this the right time for Kieboom’s call-up. “With Trea still being weeks away — not months but weeks away — we felt it not only gets one of our best prospect’s feet wet in the big leagues, get him some experience, it also strengthens a strength of ours in putting Wilmer Difo back into a more comfortable role in being that super utility player that can play multiple positions and help us off the bench.”
That, in fewer than 90 words, was Rizzo countering any skepticism on how this played out. On the surface, calling up Kieboom now instead of three weeks ago could mean one of two things: The Nationals project Turner’s rehab will be on the longer side of four to eight weeks, or they waited on Kieboom to ensure another year of team control, a practice known as service-time manipulation.
Major league players can become free agents only with six full years of service time. They become arbitration-eligible with three. That means teams can set back their clock by delaying call-ups and guarantee an extra year of control before a player hits the open market. But Rizzo and the Nationals don’t typically meddle with manipulation. Bryce Harper, Victor Robles and Juan Soto are all evidence of that. And if they did hold Kieboom back for that reason, they let him sit in the minors for more than a week longer than necessary.
The season lasts 180 days. To get a full year of service time, a player needs to be in the majors for 160. That means a minimum of three weeks in the minors equals less than a full year of service time. Kieboom’s debut Friday — which included that home run and a strikeout with the bases loaded to end the game — came on the 30th day of the major league season. If Kieboom stays in the majors from here on out, the earliest he could reach free agency is 2026.
“We think that the most important thing is that we wanted to get him some consistent at-bats at the upper levels,” Rizzo said. “We thought combined with the Arizona Fall League and major league spring training and a short stint at AAA, we thought he’s ready to perform here.”
So by this presented logic, the Nationals brought up Kieboom to improve their production at shortstop and jump-start a dragging team. Rizzo noted Friday that Turner recently met with a hand specialist in Arizona and that the loose timetable for his return has not changed. Wednesday will be a rough four-week mark since the injury. Kieboom has been learning to play second base to potentially pair with Turner in the future, yet Washington has always viewed shortstop as his best position.
Now, curious timing or not, he gets his first shot there as a moonlighting everyday player. He has already flashed upside and an ability to help the Nationals immediately. That could have been true three weeks ago, before Washington went 10-9 in Turner’s absence. It was definitely true Friday, when the Nationals dropped to 2-5 in their past seven games and he emerged as a sliver of silver lining.
“That’s not my job to worry about when I’m getting called up or what moves are being made and stuff like that,” Kieboom said before Friday’s game. “I can only worry about one thing.”
That, he explained, is what he can do for the Nationals on the field. It may sound cliche. It may be cliche. But the only element of this Kieboom can control — the only element any budding player can control — is what he makes of an opportunity. There is going to come a time, probably in a month or so, when the Nationals have to decide what to do with Kieboom upon Turner’s return. Trying to predict that outcome would take an uneducated guess.
And Rizzo left that part up in the air, too.
“[Kieboom] is a long-term part of this club,” Rizzo said. "Trea is one of the best shortstops in Major League Baseball. And when his bone heals and he’s ready to play, he will be here playing shortstop for us. That doesn’t preclude us from keeping Carter in the big leagues or sending him back down for more seasoning and recall him when we need him.”
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