Image credit: Carter Kieboom (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam Images)
SAN DIEGO— The Nationals announced the signing of Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year contract on Monday. While the announcement was a joyous occasion for the franchise, an unspoken consequence of the deal is it means third baseman Anthony Rendon likely will not be returning to Washington.
Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner told NBC Sports Washington last week the team could afford to keep only keep one of Rendon and Strasburg in free agency. Barring a change in circumstances, Strasburg’s deal means the Nationals will have an opening on their infield next season.
With that, Nationals No. 1 prospect Carter Kieboom now has a path to an everyday job in 2020.
“He’s close,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “After we had him, he went back down to Triple-A, kept his head up, and played really well. Hit well, made some adjustments. He’s going to come to spring training and get a shot to play different positions. We’ll see what transpires, but he’s a kid that we value very much.”
Kieboom, 22, hit .303 with 16 home runs, 79 RBI and a .902 OPS at Triple-A Fresno last year and ranked as the Pacific Coast League’s No. 4 prospect. He went 5-for-39 in 11 games with the Nationals while filling in for an injured Trea Turner at shortstop.
“I really feel that he learned a lot just coming up that short period of time,” Martinez said. “We know what kind of player we think he can be, and like I said, he’s learned how to become that player. He went back down, and I’ve seen a lot of guys that came up and had a rough time that go back down and don’t quite put it together. He went back down there and had a really good year in Triple-A.”
A shortstop by trade, Kieboom also played second base and third base last season for the first time in his professional career at Triple-A. With Turner entrenched at shortstop and Howie Kendrick re-signed—”When Howie’s healthy, he’ll play second base” Martinez said—third base becomes Kieboom’s most direct path to the majors if Rendon departs as expected.
Kieboom has only played 10 games at third base as a professional, all at Triple-A last season. He also stands to see time at second base if Kendrick gets hurt or has to slide over to first base in the event Ryan Zimmermann suffers an injury.
Whatever the task, Martinez said Kieboom will get the opportunity to show he can handle it.
“His improvement this year was incredible, at the plate (and) defensively,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing I’ll tell Carter is that he’s a guy that needs to use the whole field when he hits and not to take his at-bats out to the field. It’s two different things. You’ve got to play defense, and then you’ve got to hit. I think that’s something, as a young player, that you need to learn to be consistent up here.
“He’s going to get an opportunity to play this spring, so we’ll see where we’re at then.”
VLAD JR. REMAKES HIS BODY
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s rookie season went swimmingly through August. The Blue Jays phenom hit .280 with 15 home runs and an .817 OPS through Aug. 31 and was progressively improving his batting average and on-base percentage each successive month.
Then, September hit. Guerrero hit .232/.264/.293 in the final month of the season, putting a damper on his overall numbers and ending his rookie campaign on a down note.
In response, the famously portly Guerrero has spent the offseason remaking his body, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said.
“He’s been doing a lot,” Montoyo said. “Working with weights, hitting. He’s in great shape. For a young guy, he knew he ran out of gas a little bit there at the end, and he doesn’t want that to happen again. He’s working hard this offseason to get better, and I think he’s going to have a great year next year.”
Guerrero, the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero and baseball’s No. 1 prospect entering last year, was listed at 250 pounds as a 20-year-old last season and has long faced questions about his conditioning. He played 134 games between the majors and minors last year, up from a previous career-high of 119 games, in addition to participating in the Home Run Derby in Cleveland during the All-Star break.
“When I say better shape, it’s everything,” Montoyo said. “It’s a long season. They’ve never done it before. The only way to find out is doing it, and he realized, ‘Okay, I need to be in better shape to play 162 games.’ It’s a long year, and he knows that now, and he’s working out right now in the offseason.
MCKAY’S TWO-WAY DAYS NOT OVER
McKay, the Rays No. 2 prospect, posted a 1.78 ERA in the minors and broke into the Rays rotation last summer barely two years after he was drafted. As a hitter, however, he hit just .214 in the minors and was 2-for-10 in limited at-bats in the majors.
That discrepancy has led many opposing evaluators proclaim McKay should drop hitting an focus solely on pitching in the future. The Rays, according to Cash, have no such plans.
“I think we owe it to Brendan, let’s let him hit,” Cash said. “There was a reason he was the best collegiate hitter in baseball the year he was drafted, and the little bit he has hit doesn’t prove anything good or bad. Let’s get him go get some reps and get ABs, and if we need him on the mound in the big leagues, we know we’ve got a really good big league pitcher.”
McKay did hit 15 home runs and post a .342 on-base percentage in 559 plate appearances in the minors, roughly a season’s worth. He recorded his first major league hit with a pinch-hit single against the Angels on Sept. 15 and hit his first home run against the Red Sox on Sept. 22.
“I think Brendan is going to be that much better … going into his second opportunity,” Cash said, “Whether it’s at the mound or getting more reps at the plate.”