Todd Dybas

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Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

WASHINGTON -- Carter Kieboom will be provided every chance to be Washington’s starting third baseman next season. At least according to his manager.

Davey Martinez met with a small group of reporters Friday after a “Town Hall” event at SiriusXM’s downtown studios (which airs Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio Channel). Third base was the prime topic afterward.

“He deserves a shot to make the team,” Martinez said. “We need to fill a void at third base, and we think he's appropriate. He can do the job. I wasn't at Winterfest, but the guys there said he put on about 15-20 pounds of muscle, so I'm looking forward to watching him play there.

"What I want to do, and I'm going to talk to him in the next few days, is just let him play third base and not move him all over the place and let him get used to playing third base and get him over there and see what we got.”

Washington was cornered into this gamble when Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson signed elsewhere. Asdrúbal Cabrera is the secondary option at third, Martinez said. Starlin Castro will remain at second base. Howie Kendrick could also play third base from time-to-time.

The Nationals will go from an MVP finalist and a top-3 defender at third base to a 22-year-old rookie, if Kieboom ends up the starter. He made nine starts at the position for Triple-A Fresno in 2019. Overall, he made 10 appearances at third and committed four errors. It’s a drastic shift in baseline for the defending World Series champions.

"He's young, and I talked to [infield coach Tim Bogar] about getting him out there every day early and teaching him,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing about that is positioning, and I think once he learns how to play that position, and where to position himself, I think he's going to be OK. ... I want him to focus on defense. I think he's going to hit, but I think he really needs to focus on defense in spring training and then we'll go from there.”

Mike Rizzo recently called the position a “strength” despite there being no viable evidence for that claim. Kieboom is the organization’s top prospect, so he graces everyone with the intrigue attached to his potential -- his short-lived flop in the majors last season notwithstanding. Cabrera is a 34-year-old utility player who finished 2019 with a solid year after splurging at the plate when he joined the Nationals. The former could fail because of youth, the latter because of age. In the Nationals view, a prospect could blossom and a solid veteran is available for insurance.

“Asdrúbal’s going to play, and I talked to him,” Martinez said. “He's going to play third, some second, he'll play some first. He'll pinch-hit off the bench, which is kind of nice having a switch-hitter like him. What I like is we got options.”

The main one at third, in the middle of January, is Kieboom.

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Ryan Zimmerman says he and the Nationals continue to talk

Ryan Zimmerman says he and the Nationals continue to talk

Ryan Zimmerman remains unfazed.

After trying to stop Alex Ovechkin slap shots Wednesday at Capitals practice as the guest goalie, Zimmerman said he continues to not fret about his future with the Nationals.

“We’ve talked,” Zimmerman told reporters after practice. “We’re continuing to talk. I’ve made my intentions pretty clear. They know where I stand, and we know where they stand and we’ve been going back and forth the past couple weeks. I’m sure something will happen. It’s just a matter of time. We’ve got a month, anyway. Nothing going on. Take our time.”

Zimmerman has long expressed his desire to return for a 16th season and understanding it will be on an inexpensive, and brief, contract. He said earlier in the offseason he will either play for the Nationals or play more golf.

“So, we’ll be good to go,” Zimmerman said then with a smile.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Saturday at Nationals Winterfest that he spoke with Zimmerman for 90 minutes earlier in the week.

“He’s a guy that we’re talking to,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to discuss that, but he’s a guy that some day there will be a statue with his likeness on it in center field, and we’d love for him to end his career here in Washington.”

His career will end in Washington. The question is if it did in 2019 with a World Series title or if another year -- or more -- will be tacked on.

Josh Donaldson reportedly agreeing to a contract with the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday made Zimmerman’s return much more likely. The Nationals have the money and a clear fit for him on their roster. Seemingly, it’s just a matter of time before everything comes together.

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Missing out on Josh Donaldson leaves Nationals crossing fingers about Plan B

Missing out on Josh Donaldson leaves Nationals crossing fingers about Plan B

Plan B is now enacted.

Josh Donaldson chose the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, according to multiple reports. The good news for the Nationals? He’s out of the division. The bad news? He’s not on their roster. Which means they are stuck with maybes at a position manned by a National League MVP finalist last season. They also need to figure out who will be hitting third. Welcome to Team Matchup.

Donaldson would have sunk his flamboyant play right into the slot vacated by Anthony Rendon. A quality defender would operate at third; a power right-handed bat would hit third, splitting lefties Adam Eaton and Juan Soto. Washington’s lineup depth would be vast and potent.

Instead, they will spend much of the season with moving parts both in the field and within the lineup.

Candidates to hit third include Howie Kendrick, Trea Turner and Starlin Castro (the latter a suggestion from hitting coach Kevin Long when talking to NBC Sports Washington during the weekend).

Candidates to play third include Castro, Kendrick, Carter Kieboom and Asdrúbal Cabrera. None have played there extensively. None have played at an upper level in their limited appearances. Kieboom, in particular, is managing a significant learning curve at the position. He made nine starts (10 appearances) and four errors at the position when dabbling late in the season for Triple-A Fresno. Castro was forced over there by Miami for 42 starts last season. Cabrera has been in the major leagues for 13 years. He’s played third base in 165 games.

Kieboom said he’s been working at second and third during the offseason. He gained weight --15, 20 pounds -- and feels comfortable at third. His statements are standard. Spring training will prove if they are accurate.

Castro echoed the idea he is comfortable there, too, after being forced into work last year.

“Never even practiced before," Castro said. "I never played third before, not even in the minor leagues. Then I was doing well, I was doing good. It was kind of scary the first two games, then just started to feel comfortable out there. I feel really comfortable at second base, but I know I can play third, too.”

Davey Martinez will manage an aging carousel this year. His lineup followed a standard format once players returned healthy in June. Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Rendon and Juan Soto were installed almost every day of the season once all four were healthy. Victor Robles played 155 games and hit eighth most of the time. In between was the catching platoon, the second baseman of the day, and whoever was healthy enough to play first.

What the Nationals have heading to Florida is versatility and a lack of clarity.

Ryan Zimmerman’s return is all but assured by Donaldson signing in Minnesota. He will be the final infield piece to mix-and-match with. He’ll platoon at first base with Eric Thames, who will operate as a left-handed power bat off the bench when not starting. Zimmerman is the likely starter at first base. Kendrick will show up there, too, from time to time.

Castro will split time between second and third with most of his starts likely coming at second. Cabrera will be plugged in as necessary at first, second or third. He’s also an interesting switch-hit option off the bench.

Kieboom is a curiosity. He was caught on the negative conveyor belt during his brief appearance last season. What went wrong in the field was brought to the plate, which was brought to the field, and on and on. It’s the way baseball often eats its young, and key members of the Nationals' organization were surprised it was the mental challenges which hit Kieboom as much as or more than the competition jump.

Mike Rizzo has not put prospects on the roster in the past just to watch. So, if Kieboom leaves West Palm Beach with the team, it will be to play.

The infield defense as a whole will take a significant step back by replacing Rendon with any of the current options. Turner is an above-average fielder at shortstop. He also plays every day. Zimmerman is one of the best scoopers in the league at first. Second base will be average or worse defense. Third? It could be cringeworthy at times, especially for those who marveled at Rendon for years.

This is where Martinez will do the largest chunk of his managing. Boosting the bullpen with Daniel Hudson and Will Harris clarified the back end. The starting rotation is turnkey. But, manipulating matchups and tussling with age is now the key to an older roster filled with good, but not great, players. Donaldson would have made things as easy as they could be. Instead, the Nationals are counting on system, depth and hope that enough of last year's magic will be around this year.