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Signing Brian Dozier is good news for the future of Carter Kieboom

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Signing Brian Dozier is good news for the future of Carter Kieboom

What changed for Carter Kieboom on Thursday? Nothing.

The Nationals decided they wanted a veteran to assure second base was solidified in 2019. That led to a one-year, $9 million deal with Brian Dozier. He’s added to the previously situated platoon of Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick. Washington’s modest investment at the position provides depth and options. It also doesn’t slow Kieboom’s expected ascent.

It’s possible Kieboom heard the news while in Atlanta and working with former player Jay Hood, who has turned himself into something of a player development coach after a brief career in baseball’s lower levels at the turn of the century. Kieboom began working with Hood in 2015 before he was selected 28th overall by Washington in the 2016 MLB draft. His work this winter with Hood took on a new requirement: improve at second base.

That position, for now, is how Kieboom will get to the major leagues. Trea Turner is under team control the next four years. Barring injury or an unexpected and major downturn, he remains the team’s shortstop during that time. Which is why Kieboom’s slide to second base has begun.

He played 118 minor league games last season across Single- and Double-A. None were at second base, an idea that made little sense then and less so now. So, Kieboom is trying to catch up. He operated at second in nine of his 21 Arizona Fall League games following the season. That’s his first pro work at the spot.

“It was different, but it was great,” Kieboom said at Nationals Winterfest in early December. “I was glad I got to play. Got some live reps out there. To play against talent like that out there, it's definitely a quicker game. I think that's the closest thing I can get to playing in the big leagues at that position. To play second base and get all those reps is definitely beneficial for the future.”

Kieboom’s past experience at second is rooted in his previous lack of stature. He’s 6-foot-2, 190 pounds now. He was the runt in the past.

“I used to be the littlest guy on the team -- had the weakest arm so you had to play second base,” Kieboom said. “That was about it for that.”

His arm strength is more than fine for the spot now. Which makes the focus his ability to pivot in the middle of the field when working from the right side. Coming across the bag from shortstop provides momentum. That’s stalled when moving the other way, which produces an adjustment and a danger.

“The pivot is the biggest challenge any second baseman has to learn,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. “The pivot from other infielders to him at the base and from him to the shortstop at second base. It’s a delicate position to play and one you can get hurt in if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Kieboom’s main tutor in Arizona was Luis Ordaz, a former major leaguer who doubles as the Potomac hitting coach. Kieboom and Ordaz worked every morning on the adjustment.

That work will extend to spring training, then wherever Kieboom begins the season, whether it’s in Double-A Harrisburg or out west at Triple-A Fresno. The Nationals need to determine if they want Kieboom up a level and bouncing around the Pacific Coast League or much closer in Harrisburg. He made 273 plate appearances in Double-A last season. He could very well open there again.

When he looks back at 2018, Kieboom will see a year he played in the Futures Game, the organization moved him up a level and invited him to its offseason celebration with fans.

“It always feel good when you receive that sort of positive attention,” Kieboom said. “I think as a player, that's what you hope for in an organization that they believe in you and trust in you. I definitely feel like they have that trust in me up to this point. I hope to just continue to play well and take care of everything I need to take care of.”

When he looks forward, Kieboom will see a coming year intent on a position shift, further opportunity to move up and a road that remained clear during offseason moves. Dozier is the stopgap. Kieboom remains on track.

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Aaron Barrett reaches another milestone in his comeback attempt

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Aaron Barrett reaches another milestone in his comeback attempt

Aaron Barrett is an easy player to root for, and if he can complete his impressive comeback, Nats fans will get to do just that this summer.

The reliever has undergone a long, arduous process in his attempt to return to Major League Baseball. Barrett appeared in 90 games over the course of 2014 and 2015 and recorded a 3.47 ERA, but in September of 2015 he underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Later that year, he required surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle.

Nearly 11 months after Tommy John, Barrett fractured his elbow while rehabbing, requiring yet another surgery.

This week, the fan favorite moved one step closer to finally returning, as his big league bullpen session represented a major milestone for Barrett.

“It was good. I felt good,” according to Barrett. “It’s another milestone to check, but I know what the ultimate goal is, and that’s to get back to D.C. and pitch in the big leagues. So this was a good first step.”

It’s clear his goals are still much bigger than a bullpen session in February, but that doesn’t diminish from the significance of his first real big league camp in four years. That’s not something Barrett has lost sight of.

“I think it’s just significant seeing the staff and the other guys watching me pitch in big league camp,” the reliever said. “A lot of these guys didn’t get to see me pitch last year. I think to witness it firsthand is kind of an accomplishment... I’m just blessed to be on this side and be able to compete.”

As much as fans would love to be optimistic about his chances to make the Major League roster, and as enthusiastic Barrett is about throwing with Major League teammates again, the reliever was also sure to clarify that this is only one step in a long journey.

“I would be lying to you if I said I was just happy to be here,” said Barrett. “My mindset has been since Day 1 to get back to the big leagues and pitch in the big leagues. It’s not: Hey, I’m going to rehab to just throw again. My mindset has never changed. Yeah, I’m here to compete.”

Barrett went on to emphasize where his focus is going to be.

“I think the Nationals know what I’m capable of when I’m healthy, and I’m here to prove that I’m healthy. At the end of the day, that’s all I can control. Go out there, try to get guys out when they give me an opportunity to pitch. And at the end of the day, if I get sent down or whatever, that’s all I can really do. I’m looking forward to every opportunity that gets thrown at me.”

Despite the constant injury setbacks, Barrett has kept his eye on the big leagues, and continued to rehab with the goal of appearing in the majors on his mind.

The reliever signed an under-the-radar deal (his words) early in the offseason. It was a minor league deal with a spring training invite, so he knows it’s far from a lock that he ends up on the Opening Day roster. For him, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“The Nationals have been tremendous with me through the entire process,” Barrett said. “The group of guys we have here and the staff, why wouldn’t I want to come back and complete my journey?”

It makes sense why Barrett would want to return to the big leagues with an organization that has stuck by him.

“Absolutely. The Nationals could’ve easily written me off,” he explained when asked if he was surprised by the support he’s received from Washington. “But I think just a credit to the front office and the training staff and the type of organization the Nationals are. We’re family, and they treat guys like family. I’ve been blessed to be able to continue to rehab with them. They’ve seen it through. It’s just a tribute to them to stick with me and see it through. And I’m ready to show all the hard work is going to pay off.”

The road to Major League Baseball still has a ways to go, but Barrett represents a great story for fans and teammates to follow. What best sums up his experience on his first day back was simple: “It was just a lot of fun.”

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Jeremy Hellickson had to wait all offseason to end up right where he wanted to be

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Jeremy Hellickson had to wait all offseason to end up right where he wanted to be

Up until a few weeks ago, it seemed like Jeremy Hellickson might not have the job he wanted in baseball this season. Now, he’s back with the Nationals, and it appears he’s going to have a really good chance to solidify the fifth spot in the starting rotation. 

As happy as he is to be with Washington, the relief of coming back as he’d hoped would happen doesn’t lessen his frustration with the past few months.

While Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have received most of the headlines surrounding baseball’s slow-as-molasses offseason, the trickle-down effect has been second and third tier free agents finding themselves unemployed in February. 

Hellickson had been one of those non-elite free agents forced to play the waiting game up until a few weeks ago. He also went through a similarly drawn-out free agency last offseason, so he certainly knows how tough it can be.

“It doesn’t feel good,” the pitcher described. “I really wasn’t expecting this offseason to be like last, but it got to that point in the middle of January that I started feeling like I did two offseasons ago. It just sucks. It’s not a good feeling. You know you can help a lot of teams and a lot of rotations out there... I wanted to be back here.”

Hellickson pitched to a 3.45 ERA in 2018, accumulating 1.4 bWAR in just over 91 innings. Those numbers suggest he’s overqualified for a spot in the backend of a rotation, so he had reasonably expected more interest from teams this winter. He knew last offseason would be a struggle, but in 2018 he felt like he “was good when [he] was out there.”

While his stat line points to a reliable starting pitcher, there’s no guarantee Hellickson winds up in the rotation. The Nationals have some depth when it comes to competition for the fifth spot, though Hellickson appears to have the inside track to the job.

“I haven’t been told much,” Hellickson explained when asked about his specific role. “The big thing for me was I didn’t want to come into camp and have to compete for a job again. I felt like I proved myself enough last year where I didn’t have to do that. That was part of the dialogue when we were talking. That’s kind of where we left it.”

Hellickson continued on what he brings to the table.

“I don’t really look at myself as a five-inning pitcher. I’ve been throwing six-plus innings my whole career up until last year. And I could’ve done that plenty of times. I was out of there after 5 1/3, 5 2/3, 75 pitches. It’s tough to go through a lineup three times. Those guys are really good. There can’t be a lot of pitchers that have great numbers three times through. But hopefully I get stretched out a little bit this spring and I'll be able to do what I did in the past.”

As is the case with most players in early interviews this spring, the questions ultimately circle back to the state of MLB free agency again.

“It’s unfortunate,” Hellickson says. “It’s kind of sad. There’s so much talent out there right now. It just sucks when there’s only 10-12 teams actually trying and signing guys and wanting to compete. It sucks for the fans of those teams. Hopefully something gets done in the next few years, but there’s way too much talent out there to be sitting at home at the start of spring training.”

This week alone, Max Scherzer, Dave Martinez, Sean Doolittle and Adam Eaton have all already touched on the issues surrounding baseball’s offseason, and as other players arrive in West Palm Beach that group will certainly grow. More than any of those players, Hellickson knows firsthand what a slow Hot Stove season can mean for someone not guaranteed a roster spot.

From the time free agency kicked off, Hellickson always hoped he’d be back in Washington. He wants to pitch for a winning organization, and he knows the Nats have unfinished business after a disappointing 2018. 

The pitcher believes he can best help the team by going deeper into games, but at the end of the day, he envisions his role in one way: “Whatever we need to do to win games.”

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