The Nationals still believe in Carter Kieboom, they just might not have enough time to let him figure things out.
Washington is reportedly open to trading the 23-year-old infielder despite manager Davey Martinez reinforcing his commitment to him just last week. Kieboom has hit .181 across 44 games between the 2019-20 seasons, a disappointing output considering the Nationals drafted him 28th overall in 2016 and he was a consensus top-50 prospect heading into the 2019 season.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this kid,” Martinez said during a Zoom press conference Dec. 15. “I think he’s going to be fine, but he’s got to believe that in himself and he’s got to go out there and he’s got to take charge and he’s got to want the job. I’m behind him 100 percent and I’ve talked to him and I’ve told him, and I said, ‘Hey, you’re our future third baseman, and the future is now. So you’ve got to come to spring training and be ready to go. The job is yours but you’ve got to earn it.’”
The Nationals are hoping to contend for a championship next season after their World Series title defense fell well short in 2020. Chief among the problems that led to their fourth-place finish in the NL East was the offense, which struggled to produce behind MVP candidates Juan Soto and Trea Turner.
While the Nationals plan to address the lineup this offseason by targeting impact bats to fill their holes at first base and corner outfield, they may not be in a position to give Kieboom consistent at-bats in order for him to continue his development. Sending him back down to the minors probably won’t do much, either — he hit .303 with 16 home runs and a .902 OPS in 109 games for Triple-A Fresno in 2019.
If the Nationals want to compete while Max Scherzer (free agent after 2021) and Turner (2022) are still under contract, then trading Kieboom for an established player makes sense. One player that’s been linked to Washington in trade rumors is Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suárez. The right-handed infielder received down-ballot MVP votes in 2018 and 2019, hitting 83 home runs over those two seasons before adding 15 more to the tally during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
But even if Washington includes Kieboom, it’s unclear if the team has the pieces to swing a trade for Suárez. The 29-year-old is owed a little under $45 million over the next four seasons with a $15 million team option ($2 million buyout) for 2025. Kieboom’s struggles at the MLB level have dealt a blow to his trade value and the Nationals are reportedly unwilling to package top pitching prospects Jackson Rutledge or Cade Cavalli for anyone at this point.
GM Mike Rizzo said last week that the team is still in the “infancy stages” of assembling its roster for 2021. Washington could still fill both its holes in the lineup through free agency and go into next season with Kieboom manning third base and utility man Josh Harrison behind him as a security blanket. Rizzo could also acquire a veteran to push him for playing time similar to what Asdrúbal Cabrera did last year.
Yet, those scenarios would put the Nationals in a position where they’re relying on Kieboom to be a contributor for them in 2021. They’re already hoping to see center fielder Victor Robles take a step forward in his age-24 season and the catching position is unlikely to be a major source of offense with Yan Gomes expected to catch around 100 games. By running with Kieboom at third, the Nationals would have at least three lineup spots with major questions going into the season.
There’s still plenty of work for the Nationals to do this offseason and their lineup could look very different in just a few weeks’ time. But if the they are intent on competing for another World Series title, they have to determine whether Kieboom is capable of helping them do so as early as next summer.