Washington Nationals: Third Base Versatility

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 05: Carter Kieboom #8 of the Washington Nationals bobbles a throw to second base against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Citizens Bank Park on May 5, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 05: Carter Kieboom #8 of the Washington Nationals bobbles a throw to second base against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Citizens Bank Park on May 5, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images) /

The Washington Nationals depth means Carter Kieboom may not have to be a great third baseman to make the team.

Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals have created a roster which provides unique infield depth for Manager, Davey Martinez.  Trea Turner is locked into his role as the starting shortstop, but Martinez will need to get creative in order to find innings for all of his options at first, second and third base.

Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera and possibly Carter Kieboom each have the ability to play all over the diamond, providing flexibility but also creating challenges to find enough innings for each player.  Eric Thames should be the starting first baseman everyday against righties while Ryan Zimmerman and Kendrick will likely platoon against left handed pitchers.

The free agent departure of Anthony Rendon leaves a massive hole in the middle of the Nationals lineup, but it also creates concerns about the stability of the Nationals defense. Rendon was the number two defensive third basemen in Major League Baseball last year based on Def (which measures fielding runs above average relative to the average player at that position) with a rating of 36.6. Rendon’s range was also second in the league in RZR which is the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out.

Washington figures to use several if not all of their four versatile infielders to play third base in 2020 but the position will not be nearly as strong from a defensive perspective.

The Nationals organization is hoping that prospect Carter Kieboom is ready to make the jump to the Major League level.  Offensively, there is reason for the Nationals to be optimistic when it comes to Kieboom.  He slashed .303/.409/.493 with 16 long balls and 79 RBI’s in the minor leagues last year, but the biggest condondrum for Kieboom is his defense.

Spring Training will be a key for Kieboom to demonstrate that he is ready to make the leap and possibly handle the hot corner on a regular basis.  But the reality is that he lacks professional experience at third.  He has played only 10 games as a pro at third base, and has had four errors in only 32 chances. Nats fans remember Kieboom’s 10 game stint with the big league club last year, in which defensive miscues were a theme.  Kieboom had four errors in forty attempts at shortstop before being sent back to the minor leagues.

Through his four year career as a shortstop in the minor leagues, Kieboom has had a .953 fielding percentage.  So we may be able to expect a better defensive player than what we saw last season, but there is quite a way to go defensively for Kieboom to play all nine innings at third.

This is where the Nationals in-field depth could actually play in Kieboom’s favor.  Even if the Nationals believe that Carter’s defense is a liability, if they think his bat is ready to make a difference at the Major League level, there is likely a roster spot for him.

Free agent signee Starlin Castro has spent most of his career playing middle infield, but he actually started 42 games at third base for the Marlins in 2019 and had a fielding percentage at the league average.

Asdrubal Cabrera has the most experience at third base having started 143 games (90 of which came in 2019) over his 13 year career.  Cabrera’s defensive numbers are obviously not as strong as Rendon’s but according to FanGraphs their career fielding rates on routine, likely and even plays are not alarmingly different (Cabrera; 95.3%, 81.1% and 64.7% vs Rendon;  97.0 82.6 and 70.0%).

This is all to say, that while the Nationals won’t replace Rendon’s offensive or defensive production, they will need to instead, get creative with how to best utilize their infield depth.  If the team believes that Kieboom is likely to have success vs. a starting pitcher, maybe he stays in the lineup for the first two at-bats before Cabrera comes in for innings 6-9.  Or if Castro has a higher success rate against a teams closer, maybe he moves to third and Kendrick plays second base.

It appears the diversity of skills and versatility of the players, could provide Davey Martinez with the opportunity to manage in a way that we haven’t seen before.  I can see a scenario in which the Nationals are a league leader in both pinch hitters and defensive substitutions.  Both categories in which they were at the bottom of the league last season.

As we have discussed throughout the offseason, there is no way of replacing Rendon, but there is a way to put your players in positions to be successful.  Davey Martinez has a chance to have some wild lineup cards with guys playing all over the diamond in 2020.