WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A hunt for the non-baseball spark comes up empty when talking to Carter Kieboom.
He’s 22 years old, but, no, he’s not out gallivanting in West Palm Beach. He goes to the Nationals’ spring training facility -- his second consecutive time in major-league camp -- then goes home. Sometimes he hangs out with friends. Otherwise, it’s baseball to start, baseball to finish, home, rest, repeat. He looks, and acts, the same all day.
Kieboom does become frustrated at times. Or so he says. He is the straight-mouthed emoji in real life, never giving over to one emotional direction or the other. What can appear as stoicism from Kieboom is a misread he says. He’s passionate. It’s just inside of him, revolving in silence, rarely to be shared with the outer world.
“I’m not just a 100 percent happy person all the time,” Kieboom said. “That would be pretty fake.”
If there was an easy place for visual irritation to surface, it was last year during a miserable 11-game stop in the major leagues. Trea Turner broke his finger, Kieboom came up, it went poorly, he went back to Fresno. It’s neither curse nor damning. It happens, and it happened to him.
This spring, he’s in camp in the middle of a three-tier pressure cooker. Kieboom is the organization’s top prospect. That’s pressure unto itself. He’s trying to make the team as its starting third baseman. More pressure there. And, he’s doing so as the replacement for a homegrown, beloved, ingrained MVP finalist from the World Series champions of a year ago.
“I’m not here to fill [Anthony Rendon's] shoes,” Kieboom said. “That guy, in every category possible -- baseball, clubhouse, off the field, family, he checks all the boxes. He does it. He’s a special player. That’s not my job, to fill his shoes. My job’s to be myself, do what I can. Control what I can control.
“There’s going to be expectations of course. There’s going to be comparisons to what I do versus what Tony does. But that just comes with the job. That comes with anything when somebody as great as he is leaves, and joins another team and somebody needs to come in and fill the spot. I wouldn’t even say I’m replacing him. I don’t -- he’s not replaceable. But I’m here to fill a spot, take care of business, play my game and go from there.”
Kieboom entered spring training with an opportunity to lose the job at third as opposed to win it. Washington wants the potential of Kieboom to have every chance at the major-league level. However, it also has a clear veteran contingency plan if Kieboom does not start playing better this spring.
Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick are in line to play third base if Kieboom cannot correct his current course. He’s hitting .214 coming into Thursday, but has walked six times. The two errors on his ledger should really be three. A generous scoring decision kept him from a third when a well-hit ball went through the middle of his legs. His play thus far has not quelled the concerns from last year.
The difference between him and Cabrera in the field is striking and unsurprising. Cabrera is smooth, calm and almost nonchalant. Kieboom looks like he is sparring with the ball at times. One has played four infield positions across 13 major-league seasons. The other made nine starts at third base for Triple-A Fresno last year, when he was informed the slide from shortstop to third is now the new situation.
“When they told me I was going to be playing third base, it wasn’t like an, ‘Oh, crap’ moment,” Kieboom said. “It was ‘All right, let’s do it.’”
He began his winter work with drills he thought suited him. Kieboom later looked at video of various third baseman to learn how they prefer to position themselves in certain situations influenced by who is hitting, who is pitching, where runners are on, etc. In general, Kieboom argues third is similar to other infield positions. The footwork and reads need to be right. It’s the foundation for all spots.
Neither were in sync during Kieboom’s brief big-league appearance last year. He played “downhill” too much at shortstop. Problems in the field beget problems at the plate. He went back to Fresno stirred to be better as opposed to feeling defeated.
“I always like to look at things, what’s the easy thing to do and what’s the hard thing to do?” Kieboom said. “The easy thing to do in that situation was just kind of to roll over and go into your corner and just hope it goes away. The hard thing to do is to own up to your mistakes, acknowledge them and let somebody help, let somebody constructively criticize you and learn from it.
“I didn’t take what happened up there in a negative way. Of course I want to play well, of course I want to have success. We all do. But, it doesn’t always work that way for us. I knew my short stint up there and the failure that I had, I knew it wasn’t the end.”
If he is not part of the 26 leaving West Palm Beach for Washington, then New York shortly after, that also will not be the end for Kieboom. Washington’s current need to win, its situated salve if he’s not ready, and the numbers game with pitchers (both Joe Ross and Austin Voth are out of options), are all part of the current pushing against his immediate roster spot. Which makes hearing, “We want Carter to get more experience and play third every day,” a phrase which could be coming in three weeks. In the interim, he’s all baseball, all the time, trying to keep that from happening anywhere but in the majors.
“A lot of guys get one shot at this,” Kieboom said. “I’m fortunate enough to get two. This is all I’m worried about right now.”
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
- Outfield goals: Why Eaton thinks Nats' is best
- Say What: Nats players read mean tweets
- Lineup options: Starlin Castro hitting third