When Carter Kieboom made it to the majors, he announced his presence with authority.
The Nationals’ top prospect batted ninth against the San Diego Padres on April 26 for his MLB debut. Washington trailed 3-2 heading into the bottom of the eighth. Kieboom, just 21 years old, took a hanging slider and hit it to straightaway center field for a game-tying home run.
It was an incredible moment, one Kieboom and his family will look back on and remember for the rest of their lives. However, the game caught up to him quickly. Washington was forced to send him back down to the minors after he posted a .491 OPS with four errors in 11 games.
Despite the demotion, Kieboom wasn’t deterred.
“Being sent down didn’t set me back at all,” Kieboom said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event Saturday. “I wasn’t derailed by any means. So when I got sent down, I went down there and it was…a relief I could finally get back to finding myself, finding who I was again and get back to my craft and focus on what got me there in the first place.”
Eight months later, Kieboom is once again on the cusp of the major leagues. General manager Mike Rizzo mentioned the young infielder among the candidates for playing time at third base because of the departure of Anthony Rendon.
Kieboom rose through the Nationals’ farm system as a shortstop but focused on second and third base this offseason with Trea Turner entrenched at short. The Nationals signed a plethora of infielders this winter—Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera among them—so a spot on the major-league roster is unassured.
The now-22-year-old said he gained 15 pounds over the offseason. He’ll look to carry over the offensive success he had at Triple-A Fresno (.902 OPS, 43 XBH in 109 games) to the majors. Yet the biggest question remains his defense, and whether he’s ready to play third every day.
Kieboom told NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas at the Futures Game in Cleveland last season that his biggest problem defensively was playing “downhill.” Rather than letting groundballs come to him and allowing plays to develop, he was stepping toward the ball when it was hit to him and inadvertently cutting down on the time he had to adjust to its path.
“One of the things about being ‘downhill’ is your first step is always to the ball, so it changes your angles to the ball,” Nationals bench and infielders coach Tim Bogar said. “It’s understanding how much range you can have, where and when you can get to balls to your right and to your left. If you’re playing way too downhill, the ball gets to you really fast and there’s a lot of times you don’t need that to happen.”
As a shortstop, Kieboom often had ample time before the ball got to him. Meanwhile, third basemen are tested for their reaction time more often than any other player on the field.
“[At] third base obviously the ball gets on you quicker,” Kieboom said. “But you also have more time to get it over [to first]. I know it’s a longer throw but ball gets on you quick over there and it’s a matter of not rushing anything and staying calm…so third base is different, kind of like first base, you just have to throw it across the infield.”
Kieboom doesn’t yet know what position he’ll be playing this year. Third base may present the clearest path to playing time, but he’s an injury or two away from being inserted at shortstop or second as well. Despite the uncertainty, he isn’t worried about what’s out of his control. All he’s been focused on is making a more lasting impression the next time he gets his shot.
“I’m as ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said. “I got my taste last year. I learned tons of stuff, definitely better off from it. I think as a player if you get an opportunity to go up there and it doesn’t work out and you get another opportunity to be able to go up there, you can’t really beat that. So I’m really excited, this is the best I’ve ever felt in an offseason and I’m really looking forward to the 22nd.”
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