When Dave Martinez broke into the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 — then just a 21-year-old outfielder hoping to stick at that level — he didn’t make an immediate impression. Through his first 53 games and 108 at-bats, the future Washington Nationals manager hit just .139.
That could’ve been it for Martinez if the Cubs hadn’t shown faith. Instead, Martinez rebounded to put together a nine-team, 16-year MLB career in which he hit for a .276 average. He never made an All-Star team, but Martinez’s early struggles didn’t end his career.
So 35 years later, when Martinez looks at Carter Kieboom — another young player who hasn’t immediately performed at the major league level — the manager isn’t willing to make a snap judgment. He knows from experience that some players need time, and he’s banking on Kieboom being of that mold.
“For me to judge a kid, a prospect, after 44 games and 100-some at-bats?” Martinez said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
The Nationals plan for the 23-year-old Kieboom to be their everyday third baseman again, just as they did entering the 2020 season.
Last year didn’t work out, though. Midway through the campaign, Washington demoted Kieboom to the alternate training site. The club pulled Kieboom back into the big leagues 10 days later, but his production was still flat.
He finished the year hitting .202 with nine RBIs, 33 strikeouts and one extra-base hit. Across 44 games and 138 at-bats in two seasons, Kieboom is hitting .181 for the Nationals — slightly better than what Martinez produced in a similar time frame.
“If we listened to Twitter world, we would have gotten rid of Robin Ventura when he was 0-for-48 or something like that in his early days in the big leagues,” general manager Mike Rizzo said, referencing the longtime Chicago White Sox third baseman. “It’s hard to judge on these short snippets of games and at-bats, and we have to lean toward our evaluators who have seen [Kieboom] through years and progressed through the system, and trust that he’s the player that we think he is.”
The Nationals think the real Kieboom is the player who in 109 games in Triple-A ball in 2019 posted a .902 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with a .303 average to go along with 16 homers and 79 RBIs.
Those numbers shot Kieboom to the top of Washington’s prospect rankings, and MLB Pipeline considered him the 20th-best prospect around the league. To fit with the Nationals, though, they needed Kieboom to switch from shortstop to third base, with Trea Turner viewed as the club’s long-term shortstop.
Kieboom’s brief 10-game stint in the majors in 2019 came when Turner was sidelined with a broken right index finger. And while Kieboom started well — with a homer in his debut — he made four errors in the field. Patrolling third base in 2020, Kieboom finished with an improved .966 fielding percentage.
“He’s still young,” Martinez said. “He’s so young. We can’t give up on guys like him that was unbelievable his whole minor league career, and we know the upside in him.”
Washington didn’t bring in a new third baseman this offseason, expressing confidence in Kieboom instead. Martinez felt his faith in Kieboom was validated whenever the Nationals talked trades with other teams — there was usually interest in Kieboom’s availability.
But the Nationals didn’t want to move Kieboom, and Rizzo said the organization didn’t pursue a replacement, either. They believe Kieboom’s best is yet to come, shedding a slow start to his major league career to blossom into an everyday third baseman.
“Moving forward to this year and talking to him already, he has a better understanding and a different perspective of what he wants to do,” Martinez said. “He’s been great. We’ve had conversations. He’s been smiling, he’s looking around, he’s a lot looser.”
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