Last fall, when Rendon and shortstop Trea Turner were expected back for 2019, General Manager Mike Rizzo took a firm stance with Kieboom. Rizzo wanted him to keep developing as a shortstop. He figured that would set up Kieboom to transition down the line, if asked, and give the Nationals insurance behind Turner. And while Rizzo still believes that Kieboom is a shortstop through and through, his plans have become murkier.
And that’s because they now hinge on Rendon.
“He had a terrific year last year, and he made big strides in Triple-A for us,” Rizzo said of Kieboom last week at the general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We feel good about where he’s at, and he’s going to prepare for spring training and give him every opportunity to compete and make the club.”
Does that mean you expect him to push for the opening at second base?
“We’re not sure,” Rizzo continued. “We have internal options there. We have internal options at third. We’re going to come to spring training and compete for playing time, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Turner’s broken right index finger gave Kieboom his first taste of the majors in 2019. That started well, with a game-tying homer in his debut, but then the game sped up on him. He hit .128 with 16 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances. He made four errors at shortstop in 10 games. He was soon sent back to Fresno, Calif., with Turner nearing a return, but the Nationals didn’t squeeze him out of their plans.
He came up in a lot of discussions around the trade deadline. The Nationals badly needed a reliever and keyed on Shane Greene from the Detroit Tigers. But the Tigers wouldn’t budge unless Kieboom was in a deal. The Nationals wouldn’t part with him. Greene was dealt to the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals acquired three cheaper arms, and one of them, Daniel Hudson, became a key reliever who recorded the final three outs of the World Series. It also kept Kieboom on track to make his first real splash in 2020. Kieboom wound up hitting .303 with 16 home runs in 109 games with the Grizzlies.
“We liked what he did overall last season,” Rizzo said. “There were some bumps when he got up here, yes, but he got a bit of experience at the big league level and took that back down to Fresno to learn more. We’re excited for what he’s going to be moving forward.”
A committee of Brian Dozier, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick played second for the Nationals last season. Dozier was signed to a one-year, $9 million contract and expected to start every day. But he was supplanted once Cabrera joined the team on a major league deal in August and got hot at the plate. Kendrick bounced between first and second. All three are now free agents, leaving a hole on the right side of the infield. Kieboom played a decent amount of second base this past spring, even making a few exhibition starts there, and he plans to do additional work there while training in Atlanta this winter.
But if Rendon signs with another team and the Nationals don’t backfill his spot off the market, Kieboom could be the answer at third. Rendon is drawing interest from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers and Nationals, according to people with knowledge of his free agency, and the number of interested teams is expected to grow. The Nationals offered a seven-year deal worth between $210 million and $215 million in early September. Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, countered that offer, but the two sides couldn’t figure it out.
That doesn’t exclude the Nationals from making a push for Rendon in the coming weeks and months. He remains a priority, along with starter Stephen Strasburg, and the roster won’t fall into place until each situation is sorted out. That goes for a rotation that was paced by Strasburg in 2019 and a lineup that relied on Rendon’s constant production. And that goes for Kieboom, who is itching for his next chance.
“Here’s the thing with Carter, and this won’t change: If he weren’t on a team with Trea Turner, who’s a premier shortstop at 26, that’s the position Carter would play,” Rizzo said. “But it turns out that he’s on a team with Trea, and we expect Trea to be with us for a long, long time. So we’ll just have to see where Carter fits.”