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Nationals shut down 3B Carter Kieboom, making him unlikely for Opening Day

The Nationals are shutting down third baseman Carter Kieboom with a strained flexor mass in his throwing elbow. His status for Opening Day is in jeopardy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Carter Kieboom entered this spring with a chance to reestablish himself as the Washington Nationals’ third baseman of the future. He may well end this spring on the injured list instead.

Manager Dave Martinez said after the Nationals’ 6-2 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday that Kieboom suffered a strained flexor mass in his throwing elbow and will need rest and rehabilitation. The timetable for his return is unclear, though Kieboom said Sunday morning he expects to need four to six weeks in the best-case scenario.

“I’m kind of shocked, I guess. It kind of came up on me out of nowhere,” Kieboom said. “I’ve never had a problem with my elbow before. And I felt really good coming in this year.”

In any spring training, such an injury would threaten Kieboom’s chances to be ready for Opening Day. With a condensed spring because of the lockout, the window for his return by April 7 narrows even further.

For a Nats team building for the future, present starts to come into focus

“I feel bad for him,” Martinez said. “And honestly, I feel bad for us. We count on him to be our third baseman. And I’m not saying that he’s not, but it’s just going to take some time.”

Kieboom informed the coaching staff Friday he was dealing with elbow soreness, forcing Martinez and his staff to scratch him from the lineup for the Grapefruit League opener. He underwent an MRI exam Saturday morning that revealed the flexor mass strain, the same injury that sidelined Stephen Strasburg near the end of the 2016 season.

Martinez said Kieboom will undergo further tests when swelling diminishes to make sure the ulnar collateral ligament remains intact. Damage to that ligament probably would be far more problematic and often results in Tommy John surgery. But if the diagnosis holds, Kieboom will need rest and a throwing program — with just 2½ weeks to do both and be game ready if he is to make the Opening Day roster. He does not expect to meet that deadline.

“I’ve never hurt my elbow before, so I don’t know what to expect. But I just could’ve imagined it being worse than it was. It’s terrible timing, of course,” Kieboom said. "Best-case scenario, it’s only four to six weeks of some time with no throwing. And it could be a lot worse. It could be a whole year.”

Kieboom didn’t enter spring with rock-solid job security. When the Nationals decided to sell at the deadline, they gave Kieboom the chance to play third base every day. He hit .208 with a .619 OPS in August and September despite a few hot stretches in that span. His numbers then, as well as big league stints in 2019 and 2020, left plenty of reason to doubt that he would be a key part of their core moving forward. But the former first-round pick is just 24 — hardly past the point of no return.

“I really believed that this was going to be the year that [Kieboom] finds himself as far as a major league player. He’s had such a good career in the minor leagues,” Martinez said. “Sometimes it takes some people awhile.”

Without him, the Nationals’ third base options are limited. They could rely on utility man Ehire Adrianza, the 32-year-old with a .678 career OPS and 111 career games at third base. They started 26-year-old infielder Richard Ureña, who played in Class AAA in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, at third base against the Mets on Friday night. He doubled and is 2 for 4 so far this spring.

Martinez indicated the Nationals will split playing time among those two and Maikel Franco, who played every day with the Phillies and Royals from 2016 to 2020 but battled through a rough offensive season with Baltimore in 2021. Franco, 29, is a right-handed hitter with a .720 career OPS — with a more extensive track record than the Nationals’ other options.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has a history of trusting what he calls “the back of the baseball card,” betting on established veterans who have performed before to do so again rather than expecting unprecedented performance from high-ceiling types. He took that approach when he signed Alcides Escobar last year even though Escobar hadn’t played in the majors since 2018. Franco fits a similar mold.

But the Nationals had hoped that Kieboom would be able to deliver on the promise of his .288 average and .838 OPS over 1,400 minor league at-bats. Martinez said he, for one, was optimistic.

“I thought this year he looked great. He made some adjustments hitting. He was hitting the ball really well, especially to right-center field, which is nice. And he was moving a lot better,” Martinez said. “I talked to him today and told him this is just a small hiccup. I’ve seen progress. You’ve looked good this spring, so let’s just focus on you getting better.”