Then Kieboom paused before revealing what has been on his mind.
“Especially at third base in spring training,” the 22-year-old continued. “That’s something I really worked on this offseason.”
In December 2018, Kieboom was gearing up for a shot at winning the job as Washington’s everyday second baseman. Now, with a month until spring training, he is an option to fill a pressing need at third base. A natural shortstop, the Nationals’ top prospect said he is ready for another transition. He spent much of 2019 learning second base in the minors. He also dabbled at third, playing 10 games there, and has revved up his work in that spot.
A hole exists because Anthony Rendon departed in free agency in November. The Nationals were in the mix to sign Josh Donaldson, who remains available, but have since changed course. They signed veterans Starlin Castro and Asdrúbal Cabrera. They brought back Howie Kendrick, who played some third base for them last season. The plan is to rotate players through the position while giving Kieboom a chance to prove himself at spring training, which starts next month in West Palm Beach, Fla.
On Saturday, General Manager Mike Rizzo did not rush to name a starting third baseman. That doesn’t mean Kieboom isn’t eyeing the role.
“We think we’re going to be solid at third base. All of our options can play it very well,” Rizzo said. “Kieboom isn’t proven there at the big league level, but he’s a competent shortstop, and we feel comfortable from what we’ve seen in the minor leagues at third.”
Kieboom is coming off an odd 2019, which included his big league debut, homering in that game, then struggling through 11 games and 39 at-bats. He hit .128 with 16 strikeouts and made four errors at shortstop. The game sped up on him, he would later explain, and a return to the minors gave him a chance to reset.
That came at Class AAA Fresno, which moved Kieboom around from second base, shortstop and third. When considering a move to second last winter, Kieboom discussed footwork and unfamiliar angles. At third, where he last regularly played in high school, it is all about reaction time.
Tim Bogar, the Nationals’ bench coach and infield coordinator, was encouraged by what he saw from Kieboom last season, even with the handful of defensive mistakes. The Nationals feel that natural shortstops are flexible, and they have never worried about Kieboom’s ability to switch positions. The difference now is that they are fixed on developing him at second or third. The previous company line was that Kieboom would stay a shortstop and bounce around when needed. Then that necessity arrived.
If Kieboom earns the chance to play every day at third, the Nationals could spell him with Cabrera, Castro or Kendrick and make sure everyone gets at-bats. Castro profiles well as a starting second baseman, though he could see more time at third if Kieboom is not ready. Kendrick would otherwise mix in at second base and first. Cabrera can play anywhere. Kieboom, should he make the Opening Day roster, doubles as a backup shortstop and depth at second.
“It’s by design that we give our manager flexibility to do what he feels comfortable with that given day,” Rizzo said. “We needed about 48 players last year to win a world title. This thing takes a village. It takes depth. You have to have players that are willing to accept the challenge of being versatile and using multiple lineups.”
So the only definite is that there won’t be any. Kieboom has the opportunity to join the infield carousel. In that way, this winter feels similar to the last. He just hopes this season is different, that when it’s over, and again time to look ahead, he may have one position to focus on, not three cramming his brain.
Or maybe his strength is that he can be plugged in anywhere. The Nationals are about to find out.
“I’m showing up to spring training ready to play any positions in the infield, really,” he said. “Obviously I put more emphasis at certain spots. But I feel very comfortable at all of them — I really do. I mean that when I say that. I’m pretty honest.”
Then, once more, he hinted at third and what’s ahead.
“I’m really excited to get an opportunity over there,” he said.