Once two of the Nationals’ most promising prospects, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom will spend this spring fighting for spots on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster.
This is new territory for Robles, who’s been Washington’s starting center fielder for Opening Day each of the last three years. Consecutive down years at the plate forced the Nationals to demote him to Triple-A last September and he reported to West Palm Beach looking to show he can bounce back in 2022.
Kieboom, meanwhile, has been in this same position ever since Anthony Rendon departed for the West Coast. He battled Asdrúbal Cabrera for the third base job in 2020 and did the same with the Starlin Castro last year. Both times, the veteran beat him out and he was forced to wait for an opportunity in the minors.
“These are two of our good prospects that both have flashed the aspects of being great players in the big leagues,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said in a press conference Sunday. “I’m high on both those guys. I like them both, they’re a big part of our future and my expectation is they’re going to be battling for a spot and their talent should be good enough to win a spot…my expectation is they’re part of our best 26.”
Barring any last-minute trades or free-agent signings, the Nationals will hold competitions between Kieboom and non-roster invitee Maikel Franco at third base while Robles, Lane Thomas and Yadiel Hernández battle it out for the left and center field spots. Utility man Ehire Adrianza, signed to a one-year deal Sunday, will take reps all over the diamond this spring.
For Kieboom, the Nationals are looking to see improvement on both offense and defense. The natural shortstop has had three years to adjust to third base, a position where he’s struggled even with routine plays. It hasn’t helped that he’s hit just .197 with eight home runs in 106 games at the major-league level — though his playing time has often been sporadic.
“Carter looks great, he really does,” manager Davey Martinez said Wednesday. “He did some things; he tweaked some things on his swing. So, I’m looking forward to watching him compete in a game.
“I talked to him, I said, ‘Look, you’re coming in here to win an everyday job at third base and you can do that,’” Martinez said. “It’s totally up to him now. So he understands, he knows what he needs to do and we just want him to go out there and compete. For him, and honestly for Victor Robles as well, they understand what they need to do to come into spring training.”
The man Kieboom is competing with, Franco, was released by the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles in August after he posted a .609 OPS in 104 games. In other words, Kieboom has the edge in his position battle. The same can’t be said for Robles, who was out-hit by both Thomas (.853 OPS in 45 games for the Nationals) and Hernández (.742 OPS in 112 games) last year.
Defense has never been a problem for Robles, a Gold Glove finalist in 2019. He just hasn’t been able to find his identity at the plate, revamping his entire approach last fall with little results to show for it. His .606 OPS over the last two seasons is tied for fifth-worst in the majors among players with at least 500 plate appearances.
The Nationals plan to break camp in April with their 26 best players. They’re building for the future, but the team is going to try and field a competitive roster out of the gate. Whether that roster includes Kieboom or Robles will come down to their ability to translate their potential into success on the field.