A week ago, with Carter Kieboom mired in a spring training slump, the Washington Nationals gave their first indication that the 23-year-old prospect might not be the team’s starting third baseman come opening day.
Manager Dave Martinez gave Starlin Castro an opportunity at the position instead, a move he described as a way to cover Washington’s bases — just in case circumstances required a deviation from the original plan of Kieboom becoming an everyday big leaguer.
Just in case turned into reality Saturday, when the Nationals made a slew of roster moves. Among them, Kieboom was optioned to Washington’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decision Martinez explained Sunday as a way to improve Kieboom’s confidence and consistency at the plate.
“We want to get the pressure off him, to get him down and get him going,” Martinez said. “But he’s a big part of our future. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we want Carter here; we want Carter to be our everyday third baseman in the future. But we want to make sure we get him right, get him in rhythm. He’s a good player, he’s going to be a good player. We want him just to relax and go find his swing and get him going.”
That’s been the difficulty for Kieboom at the highest level so far in his career. In his 44 career games, he’s hitting .181 with 49 strikeouts to 25 hits. And in spring training this year, he has 17 strikeouts and six hits in 17 games.
Those marks fall far below how Kieboom performed in the minors, with a .303 batting average at the Triple-A level in 2019. When the Nationals allowed Anthony Rendon to depart in free agency, the trust in Kieboom’s ability played a large role.
Martinez said Kieboom has improved defensively at third base, but Kieboom hasn’t shown a command of the strike zone this spring. Martinez will know he’s ready once he begins hitting the ball to right-center field with power.
“He’s got to have consistent at-bats, and that’s something he’s going to work on down there,” Martinez said. “Hopefully it comes sooner than later, because we want him back. We want to make sure he’s positive, that he stays positive, and that he continues to work and get better.”
Castro, who’s dealing with a strained left hamstring, should be ready to start at third for the Nationals on Thursday against the New York Mets. Josh Harrison will take the bulk of starts at second base. And to fill out a five-man bench that includes outfielder Andrew Stevenson, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Alex Avila, Washington selected the contracts of veteran utility players Jordy Mercer and Hernan Perez.
The latter two players give Martinez flexibility. Mercer, who spent much of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates before splitting the 2020 campaign between the Tigers and Yankees, can play around the infield. Perez has played every position but catcher — although Martinez said he’ll be the Nationals’ emergency option there, too — and can serve as a pinch-runner.
That led Perez and Mercer to land opening day roster spots ahead of Kieboom or 20-year-old second baseman Luis Garcia, who was also optioned to Triple-A.
“What I love is we have that depth,” Martinez said. “And that’s kind of nice to know that you have veteran guys on the bench that can do multiple things.”
Washington also reassigned several pitchers — such as right-hander Rogelio Armenteros and left-hander Seth Romero — to the alternate training site while selecting the contract of Luis Avilán to fill out what looks to be an eight-man bullpen to begin the season.
Those moves leave the Nationals’ opening day roster mostly set, with the biggest move coming in Kieboom’s demotion to the minors. But Martinez feels the third baseman will be better for it in the long run, with time in Fredericksburg to practice situational hitting on top of two to three games against the Baltimore Orioles a week.
Then Triple-A ball begins in May, offering Kieboom more chances to rediscover the consistency that made him a top prospect and Washington’s perceived third baseman of the future.
“I told him, this is not the last time I’m gonna see him, believe me,” Martinez said. “We’ll be together for a long time.”
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