Carter Kieboom needs the luck of the Irish or the Nats need a Plan B!

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

See ball, hit ball. It is the most basic message from a coach to a player holding a bat. We had avoided the Carter Kieboom storyline for an entire Spring Training until now. But we should discuss it now. Performance at this time of year is about getting timing down and getting your reps in and progressing day-by-day. The process and eye test are what should count most. Results can be taken with a grain of salt and are too skewed in small sample sizes. Two balls put in play in a 25 at-bat sample that could have been hits will change everything.

There are players far below Kieboom’s stat line this year. But none of them are expected to make the roster. Jake Noll cannot buy a hit, and he has already been cut and optioned to Triple-A. The same with Raudy Read and Jackson Cluff who were included in the same cuts on Sunday by the team that also sent Israel Pineda, Jakson ReetzDrew Mendoza, and Cody Wilson to minor league camp.

There was hope that a matchup for Kieboom against a lefty starter would get him going last night. It did not. He was 0-3 against the lefties yesterday with two strikeouts. His 32.0% K-rate is not good, especially when you are getting some favorable matchups in games. A .160 batting average with a .462 OPS is even worse when you consider Kieboom’s one extra-base hit (a triple) was a gift. It was originally ruled an error after the ball went in-and-out of the centerfielder’s glove and later ruled a triple because it was determined the fielder lost the ball in the sun.

The process, if you look at Kieboom’s at-bats, is not good in the last week and a half. Too much swing and miss. Too much light contact. Too little contact. What is wrong with him? He has about ten games to show he belongs and silence his critics. We are rooting for you Carter! We posted up before camp that his groin injury was a reason for his struggles last year, but Kieboom himself when asked about the groin dismissed it as an insignificant issue. It was later disclosed by his hitting coach, Kevin Long, that the infielder had LASIK surgery to improve his vision.

“He did some stuff with his eyes, and he’s seeing the ball better,” Long said earlier in the month.  “He’s not like squinting and apparently the LASIK that he had is working. His swing, putting his hands back and getting into a better position. He looks good. So we’ll continue to monitor Carter and see where he’s at.”

“But mentally, which I think is more important than anything right now, he’s in a very, very good position. He’s very, very positive and upbeat. He’s bringing energy and life every single day.”

That word “mentally” from Long might have gone from good to bad. We all know Yogi Berra‘s take on the mental side of the game. It is real. Confidence is everything when stepping into the batter’s box.

Before camp started, general manager Mike Rizzo was firmly in Carter’s corner. He was right on a lot of what he said, but he is also basing his assessments on his own scout’s eye as well as others who are close to him.

Rizzo has a history of sticking with struggling players like Danny Espinosa who played in in 779 games for him and finished with a .226 batting average. During the 2016 NLDS, his manager, Dusty Baker was asked about why he was playing Espinosa.

“Who else do I have?” Baker said. “That’s my answer. I mean, you can give me somebody better, then I can play somebody instead of him. You know, certain times you have certain people on your team and that’s what you’ve got.”

Several weeks later, the team traded Espinosa to end their relationship. What other choice did Rizzo have after his manager had thrown the shortstop under the bus.

There was also the case of  Michael A. Taylor who played in 574 regular season games with a .237 batting average. He was released after last season before his final year of team control expired. It is way too early to cut bait on Kieboom, but the point here is to show that Rizzo sticks with his young prospects. Kieboom before last year was the Nº 1 rated prospect in the Nats system. He has more time in camp to turn things around. Plus the 23-year-old has minor league options remaining and years of team control. There is time to turn things around.

“I’m not going to judge any player off — what 140 plate appearances (actually 165) in his Major League career,” Rizzo said early in Spring Training. “We see him as a guy with great upside for us who is going to be a really good player for us.We have confidence in Kieboom that he’s going to be a good player.”

A few games into camp, Mike Rizzo spoke to the media and gave his assessment of Kieboom’s performance in the batter’s box.

“I like where he’s at, and the tweaks he made with his swing. I think are coming around. I’ve seen him take some pitches the other way with authority this Spring Training,” Rizzo said early in March.

Spring Training stats 2021 through 3/17/2021

After last night’s game, manager Dave Martinez was asked about Kieboom’s struggles in Spring Training games.

“Down in Spring Training, I don’t look for results, as far as getting hits and stuff,” Martinez said after the game. “I want him to go up there and relax and hit the ball hard. That’s all I’m asking for him to do down here, and then just have good at-bats. He might be pressing a little bit. But he needs to go out there and show me he can put good at-bats together. That’s what he needs to do.”

It’s easy for a manager to preach that approach, but is it hard for a young player trying to prove his worth to not focus on results —  but to focus on the process?

“Trea, you think he’s having a bad spring [based on batting average],” Martinez said. “But before today, he lines out once or twice a game. To me, those are good at-bats. He’s taking his walks. Those are good at-bats. I just want to see Carter go up there and have good at-bats, make the routine plays and have fun.”

But Trea Turner has a proven track record and is racking up the walks. His OBP is .360. He is making good contact. A better example might be looking at Juan Soto or Kyle Schwarber who are part of the struggling lefties. But again, these are proven MLB players. Sure, Schwarber struggled last year, however he has a longer track record of success. Kieboom’s resumé is limited with a .181 career batting average in 138 at-bats.

“I was playing with a lot of stuff in the shortened season [last year],” Kieboom said upon entering camp in February. “I didn’t have the opportunity to really, like you do in an offseason, to really kind of hit the nail on the head in a sense. I think I was just tweaking with a lot of other stuff.”

“But this is — I would say, my best offseason yet. I feel definitely the most prepared coming into this year, and we’re going to take advantage of the opportunities.”

There was reason for optimism with Kieboom. New eyesight, healthy, and wiser. A clean slate, and he entered this offseason with a clear path to the starter’s job with the seal of approval from both Rizzo and Martinez. But quickly, we are back to the same issue as a year ago. The team had no clear Plan B last year, and this year, where would they go if Kieboom is not ready to go?

The Plan B options are not clear. If Jordy Mercer or Hernan Perez were your Plan Bs, you better tear up your plans. Neither are as good as Kieboom defensively and Perez has not shown anything with the bat, and Mercer is almost equal to Kieboom in offensive production. There were reasons why Mercer and Perez were available to sign to minor league deals if we can be honest here.

Maybe the most reasonable Plan B is the most obvious. Shift Starlin Castro to third base where he played so well in 2019, and put the 20 year old, Luis Garcia, in at second base. This would give Martinez another lefty, and Josh Harrison could take some of those matchup starts against some tough lefty pitching. That might change the balance as the team would also have a need for a right-handed outfielder to backup Schwarber where many thought Harrison would fit that role. Any chance of getting Ryan Zimmerman back into leftfield? Probably not, but we will see what Rizzo does. There is always a chance for a waiver claim or an opt-out opportunity to snag a player. It is that time you wish you signed Adam Duvall who crushed a home run off of Patrick Corbin last night.

As commentor J.D. brought up, Jedd Gyorko is a free agent who still has not signed and is certainly a viable option. That brings up another point to stick with what you have and move forward and make a move at the July 31 trade deadline if the third base situation is still a weakness.

The most probable situation is that Kieboom will get the starter’s job at third base to start the season, and they will give him time. That is the typical Rizzo modus operandi. It is a good time for one of the best Dusty Baker quotes in his time with the Nats.

“This isn’t a try-out camp. This is try to play the best team overall to win the game and win the pennant,” were the infamous words from ex-manager Baker on who he plays.

This Kieboom situation is among the top storylines with just 15 days before Opening Day. On this St. Paddy’s Day, we wish the luck of the Irish for Carter Kieboom.

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