When the Capitals won their Stanley Cup in 2018, the summer of celebration was somewhat subdued: Head coach Barry Trotz resigned 11 days after the team won Game Five in Las Vegas. The Nationals enjoyed a longer winning winter, but 2020 officially began 41 days after they triumphed in Game Seven when Anthony Rendon inked a seven-year contract worth $245 million with the Los Angeles Angels.
“You’re talking about an MVP-caliber ballplayer,” manager Davey Martinez told the media last week. “He’s definitely going to be missed; his teammates are going to miss him.”
How well they cover Rendon’s absence on the field and in the lineup will go a long way toward determining whether the Nationals will be a contender or a pretender in the National League East. Because it’s a challenge to replace your best bat while also replacing your surest glove — even more so when it’s the same guy.
Infielder Carter Kieboom gets the first crack at replacing Rendon at third base. The prime prospect hit .303 with 16 homers and 79 RBI last season for AAA Fresno. Nobody expects the 21-year old to hit 34 homers with 126 RBI as a rookie, but his bat should be major league-ready.
That said, Kieboom hit .128 over 11 games during a brief audition last spring, although he did homer in his major league debut. He’s also played just 10 of his 329 career minor league games at third. But Kieboom will get plenty of run over the next six weeks; one key is confidence in himself.
“I talked to him already and told him ‘I want you to go out there and compete every day,’” manager Davey Martinez told the media last week. “Just be you. This is a fairly new position for him. He’s been coming out every day and working diligently; his footwork is good.”
For a young fielder learning a new everyday position at the major league level, the opposite of “good” is “perfect” — Kieboom needs to head out every day knowing he doesn’t need to make perfect plays in order to lock down the starting job. What is his manager looking for?
“Two things: arm strength and footwork. And that’s something that we’re working on right now,” Martinez said. “Once we get his footwork and legs underneath him he can actually [make the throws].”
Other possibilities: While Kieboom is learning the ropes at third, three Nats veterans have had the bulk of their experience at the position deep in their careers. Asdrubal Cabrera did not play a game at third last season with the Nats, but he did make 90 starts on the hot corner while with Texas in 2019 and has made 142 of his 143 Major League starts at third base over the last three seasons. Howie Kendrick has 25 career starts at third, and 10 of them came last season; Starlin Castro made all 42 of his starts at the position last year while with Miami.
“I know Cabby’s played there; Howie could possibly play there and Starlin could move over and play there as well,” Martinez said. “We have a lot of guys who can do multiple things and I kind of like that.”
Finding the right fit at third base will be important; figuring out who bats third, in Rendon’s spot, is just as important.
The Nats’ number-three spot in the batting order led the majors last year, with an on-base percentage of .398 and a slugging percentage of .579; they also led MLB with 127 runs scored and 143 runs driven in.
Juan Soto would appear to be the heir apparent, after hitting 34 homers with 110 RBI, but the outfielder has hit just .145 in 83 at-bats from the No. 3 spot in his career (barely over half of his .287 career average). He also won’t have the protection of batting behind himself in the cleanup spot.
Shortstop Trea Turner could be an option; he made 503 of his 521 at-bats last season from the leadoff spot, but provides power (21 homers per 162 games played in his career) while striking out more than most atop the lineup (133 K’s per 162 games). While Kieboom needs to get a solid footing at third base, Martinez could mix things up this spring before arriving at his regular No. 3 hitter.