WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was reminiscent of the scene that took place almost a year ago in nearly the same spot of the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse. Like Anthony Rendon last spring, Carter Kieboom stood in front of the big screen television hanging on the wall that blocks off the entrance to the clubhouse and held court.
It was a different message, of course. Rendon last year was talking to reporters about the uncertainty of his final contract year at third base — before he would go on to have an MVP-type season and lead the Nationals to their first World Series championship.
Kieboom had to answer questions about the uncertainty of replacing the ghost in the room — Rendon, who left for a seven-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
It’s a big ask for the Nationals shortstop prospect — making the transition to third and replacing a Gold Glove-caliber player.
“I feel very comfortable there, and I feel very prepared and ready to go,” Kieboom said. “This is all I’ve been working on all offseason, and at this point in my career, this is the most I ever felt prepared and ready to play.”
He wasn’t quite prepared for his 11-day stint at shortstop last year, called up from Triple-A Fresno filling in for the injured Trea Turner. Kieboom struggled at the plate and on the field, going 5 for 43 and four errors. But he got himself right after being sent back down to the minors, finishing the season overall with 16 home runs, 79 RBI and a .303 average in 109 games.
Kieboom remained Washington’s top prospect and showed enough that they feel comfortable giving the 22-year-old from Marietta, Georgia., a chance to fill the hole left by Rendon.
“I learned more in that two weeks … I went up there and failed a lot,” Kieboom said. “Had a little bit of success, but I failed a lot. To fail in an environment like that, it’s different. You deal with media after the games, you don’t deal … if I had two errors in a game in the minor leagues, I don’t have to deal with any media after. It’s just a matter of how you handle things. I don’t like to fail, but I never felt uncomfortable by any means up there. But just take it day by day up there, just try to be yourself.”
One of the people he tried to learn from was the man he was replacing, Trea Turner, sidelined with a hand injury for several weeks that never fully healed. Kieboom had conversations with Turner — the kind where you learn how to carry yourself and prepare to play in a different environment.
“We talked more on the field and that kind of thing, so I got to pick all these guys’ brains last year,” Kieboom said. “I was right in the corner over there (in the locker room) with (Rendon and Turner) I didn’t necessarily have to ask. You can just kind of listen and hear the things that they talk about and how they prepare themselves every single day.”
For Turner, it is a tough personal transition from his absence of his good friend and his five-year partner at third base.” I would love for Anthony to be back, but that’s baseball, and it’s a business,” he said.
But he also said that Kieboom doesn’t have to be the second coming of Rendon to help this team. “Carter just needs to be himself,” Turner said. “He doesn’t need to replace Tony. I think he will be a great player. He just has to get out there and prove it. And I think he has a good shot at doing that this year.
“He’s (Kieboom) a good kid who wants to do things right,” Turner said. “He’s a hard worker. He is humble and is here to work. That is why he is going to be a good player at this level, because he is open minded and ready to work.”
If he is not ready, the Nationals have a Plan B — 34-year-old backup infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who shined last year for Washington after being released by the Texas Rangers in August. Cabrera batted .323 with six home runs and 40 RBI in 38 regular season games for the Nationals.
Manager Dave Martinez also suggested returning World Series hero Howie Kendrick could see some time at third, as well as newcomer Starlin Castro, although Martinez said he hopes to get Castro established at second.
But the hope is that there is a transition from Rendon to Kieboom that gives the Nationals a shot at defending their World Series title.
“Everybody is very positive, very focused on the task at hand, which is to win another World Series,” Kieboom said. “That’s what everybody in this clubhouse wants to do. When you’re around a group of guys who all have the same focus and the same goal at the end of the day, it’s very easy to come together.”
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