The Nationals took a 17-game look at their third base options in spring training. Carter Kieboom was on display to see if he could take the playing time the Nationals wanted him to grab. Asdrúbal Cabrera calmly operated as the backup plan.
Kieboom played in 14 of the 17 games, started 10, produced a .695 OPS based mostly on his ability to walk (as many walks, seven, as hits) and made three errors in 10 starts at third base. It’s an alarming rate. That’s a 49-error full season. Anthony Rendon made 53 errors in seven seasons playing third base (729 starts).
The sample, of course, is also from a short period in spring training -- not the most reliable information for decision-making, though the numbers mattered when assessing Kieboom.
Back when things were normal, Kieboom could have a bad spring, go back to Triple-A Fresno, and Cabrera could start at third. Howie Kendrick could pop over there on occasion, too.
Or, the Nationals could have given Kieboom a further chance by opening the season with him at third, see if he sinks or swims, and make a decision after a larger sample size of his work.
However, there is no minor-league season now. There is no room to play-and-see. So, Kieboom will be on the active 30-man roster, then remain through the 60-game season. The question is if the Nationals want him to start at third base during a season in which every game counts so much more -- 2.7 times more, to be exact.
Back in spring training, Kieboom explained he was operating from three base positions: He knows last year’s outcome at the big-league level was a shock to the system; he isn’t Rendon; he expects to play much better.
“I’m not here to fill [Rendon's] shoes,” Kieboom told NBC Sports Washington. “That guy, in every category possible -- baseball, clubhouse, off the field, family, he checks all the boxes. He does it. He’s a special player. That’s not my job, to fill his shoes. My job’s to be myself, do what I can. Control what I can control.
“There’s going to be expectations of course. There’s going to be comparisons to what I do versus what Tony does. But that just comes with the job. That comes with anything when somebody as great as he is leaves, and joins another team and somebody needs to come in and fill the spot. I wouldn’t even say I’m replacing him. I don’t -- he’s not replaceable. But I’m here to fill a spot, take care of business, play my game and go from there.”
Every team has to decide how serious they are going to be about the 60-game season for the entire two months. Everyone will start with an authentic pursuit of winning. But, two bad weeks can flush an eight-week season. What happens then? And, what happens beforehand to prevent the two bad weeks? Those parameters could influence the Nationals’ decision of Kieboom or Cabrera to start immediately and play full-time.
Kieboom essentially went through two bad weeks last year when he was in the majors. He played 11 games, compiled -1.0 bWAR -- hard to do in such a short spell -- then was sent back to Fresno. Those games came at shortstop. He did not start playing games at third base until late in the season when back in Triple-A. He made nine starts, and struggled in the field there, too.
A replication of his short big-league stint would be a significant problem this year. Cabrera is not impervious to slumps, like any hitter. But, he is also a proven, quality, role player. Across 13 seasons, his OPS-plus is 106. He has a .773 career OPS at Nationals Park. That’s more than viable for someone hitting sixth or lower.
So, what do the Nationals want to do here? Take a chance with Kieboom to start and make a swift decision if it’s not working? Or use Cabrera, allowing Kieboom to be the designated hitter on occasion and backup third baseman while he continues his learning at third base before games?
Maybe Kieboom gets the initial nod and has the opposite outcome of last year. But when a team is the defending champions, “maybe” isn’t a word they want to use often.
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