Based purely on talent, Washington Nationals rookie Carter Kieboom should make the Opening Day roster, but here are the reasons why he won’t.
This week the Washington Nationals conducted their first full-team workouts of the spring and all eyes have been on top prospect Carter Kieboom. The general consensus is that Kieboom will need to be a major contributor in order for the 2020 Nationals to be successful. I agree with this ideology, as Kieboom will look to put a dent in the offensive production vacated with the departure of Anthony Rendon. But while much of the National’s success hinges on Kieboom’s season-long production, it does not mean that Kieboom should make the opening day roster. In fact, he probably won’t.
Much of the decision around Kieboom’s inclusion on the opening day roster is related to what MLB calls “service time.” Service time is used to determine when a player is eligible for free agency. According to league rules, an MLB regular season lasts 187 days; if a player spends 172 of those days on a major league roster or injured list, that player earns a year of service time. Players can earn a year’s worth of service time incrementally—so in Kieboom’s situation, the 11 games that he played with the Nationals last season impact Kieboom’s accrued service time—but after earning 172 days in total, his clock to free agency begins.
Of course, if Kieboom begins the season on the active roster (and let’s assume he remains on the active roster all season), his service time would equal 1 year by the end of the season. The Nationals however, could manipulate this rule and keep Kieboom’s service time under 172 days in order to delay his free agency and keep him under team control for an extra season.
This was the same situation for Kris Bryant during his rookie season which he appealed and lost earlier this offseason. Roberto Acuna, Evan Longoria, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and even former National Bryce Harper all experienced similar delays to their rookie campaigns in order for their organizations to maintain an extra year of control over the player.
In Kieboom’s case, the Nationals could gain an extra year of control by starting him in the minor leagues and calling him up around April 22nd. In that case, Kieboom would still be on the roster for about 140 MLB games in 2020, and many fans may not even remember that he started the season in the minor leagues.
Another consideration is the teams depth. If and when Carter Kieboom makes the Nationals roster, it likely means the end of the organizational relationship with Wilmer Difo. Difo probably won’t ever be an All-Star, but he has been a serviceable middle infield option for the Nationals over the last five seasons. Difo appeared in 128 and 142 games in ’17 and ’18, and hit .252 while filling in for Trea Turner when he was injured in 2019.
Difo should be the odd man out when Kieboom makes the roster and he is out of minor league options, meaning he would need to clear waivers (which would be challenging) before being sent to the minors in the Nationals system.
Realistically, Kieboom will, at some point, be a part of the 2020 Nationals roster, making it a question of when not if Difo will hit the waiver wire. However, last season, the Nationals suffered injuries to infielders Howie Kendrick, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon all before the end of April.
Losing a versatile and experienced player like Difo prior to Opening Day would be a blow to the teams depth. And of course, Kieboom can be called up at any time to replace an injured player, it will just add to his service time.
The Nationals infield depth features veterans Asdrubal Cabrera and Starlin Castro, each of whom spent significant time at third base in 2019. Even if the Nationals deem Cabrera and Castro inferior to Kieboom, they should be able to get away with playing one or both of them at third for a few weeks before promoting Kieboom.
Of course, the Nationals are presenting the third base competition as Kieboom’s to win. If he dominates the spring session, it’ll be a tough-sell for management send Kieboom to the minors as the team prepares to defend their World Championship. But at the end of the day it’s a business decision. And business decisions tend to be predicated on money and control.
The service time rule has all sorts of moral and ethical issues. I hate the rule as it puts young players at risk and cheats fans out of seeing players in the big leagues until it is financially convenient for the team. But that’s another conversation entirely.
The Nationals think very highly of their top prospect, and they’ll have to make a decision if 20-something games in April during Kieboom’s rookie campaign is worth an entire year of utilizing his skills down the road. My guess is that it isn’t, and Kieboom’s 2020 Nationals debut will be delayed beyond Opening Day.