Games of throne
The Nationals won the 2019 World Series and have much the same core in place for the next several seasons … with one major exception. Third baseman Anthony Rendon is now a member of the Angels after an astronomical effort last year.
Filling in at the hot corner is one thing. The Nationals gobbled up a bevy of veterans that can probably hold things down as needed. Well-conceived mix and match approaches can work; the Nats need not fret that they failed to retain Rendon or bring in a replacement on the order of Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado.
Relying on platoons and cycling through veterans is a fine strategy … to a point. It’s hard to platoon all over the field due to roster limitations. Grinding out good-enough, affordable production works best when it’s done as a complement to a fleet of star-level performers.
That’s essentially how the D.C. organization reached the promised land last year. The Nationals’ farm system has rarely ranked among the best in the game in recent seasons. But the team has nevertheless sustained exceptional overall results ever since its 2012 breakout — with a few peaks and valleys, but all winning seasons — due in large part to its ability to promote or sign new star performers. Even as Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmermann, and Bryce Harper departed, the club brought in Max Scherzer and Patrick Corban via free agency … and, more importantly, graduated Trea Turner and Juan Soto. Now, with Rendon out — and even with Stephen Strasburg retained — the Nats’ mid-term outlook may depend upon the ability to find another core piece to deliver output worth far more than his salary.
For the Nats, the big question isn’t whether they’ve got someone to match Rendon’s production at third base in 2020; it’s doubtful they do. Rather, it’s whether they can cook up another high-level star to take Rendon’s place as a multi-year, cost-controlled stalwart.
That’s a long-winded way to say: ease off on poor Carter Kieboom. The Nationals’ top prospect could indeed be the heir to Rendon’s third-bag throne, but he’s not the only hope here. Kieboom is an exciting talent at the plate, but he’s just 22 years of age, struggled quite a bit last year in the majors, and hasn’t yet mastered the third base position despite coming up as a shortstop.
No doubt the dream scenario is for Kieboom to explode onto the scene. He’s ready for a full test, though the outcome remains uncertain. But really, he may actually not be the top candidate to step into the void. Rendon was long the lower-profile co-star to Harper. Perhaps Victor Robles — the organization’s former top-ranked prospect — can be the same to Juan Soto.
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In the case of Robles, he’s already a valuable MLB performer — and he’s barely a hundred days older than Kieboom. Robles roamed center field for 155 games last year, performing at about 10 percent below a league-average offensive player. But he was an excellent defender and baserunner.
Just how good was Robles without the bat in hand? Plenty to make up for the so-so hitting effort. Fangraphs graded him out as a solid regular at 2.5 WAR in his rookie campaign. But Baseball-Reference, which relies upon DRS rather than UZR, was wowed by Robles’s glovework and credit him with over four wins above replacement.
Regardless, there’s a nice floor to work from. Any improvement at the plate — let alone a real breakout — could make Robles into a certified star. But there are reasons for trepidation, too. Though he popped 17 long balls, Robles managed only a meager 23.0% hard-hit rate (bottom 4% leaguewide) and carried a .292 xwOBA that lagged his .317 wOBA. Given that he faced questions about quality of contact in the minors, particularly after returning from a major wrist injury, it’s fair to wonder if Robles will ever really do much more damage at the dish.
While most of the top Nats prospects are pitchers, there is one other possibility of interest: middle infielder Luis Garcia. He ran into some difficulties last year at Double-A, but did so while playing at that lofty level at 19 years of age. Garcia was turning heads this spring, with a .417/.462/.542 output in 27 plate appearances. The odds are low that he’ll blossom into anything approaching a star on Rendon’s order, but his ceiling probably encompasses some All-Star level performances.
Perhaps it’s too much to say that the Nationals absolutely need another young star. But it’d represent far and away the clearest path to a return to the top of the NL East heap after two seasons spent chasing the Braves. The Nationals can’t assume their expensive and excellent (but not especially youthful) rotation will be as good as it has been. The bullpen is a perennial question mark. And there are veteran timeshares scattered over much of the rest of the roster.
A breakout from Robles or Kieboom — or, in the near-future, Garcia — would potentially give the Nats a trio of position-player stars to help keep the contention window open for a full decade or more. Or, perhaps, two of those youngsters may settle in as excellent, cost-controlled regulars, which might be about as good as a single star. Regardless, the point remains: the Nationals’ top-heavy roster and farm needs to score a few more hits. If that doesn’t come to pass, it’s fair to wonder whether the relatively thin farm system will be enough to support a winning team for much longer, given the ever-rising costs of the team’s stars (even in relation to a hefty payroll) and the pending free agency of other significant portions of the roster after the 2020 campaign.
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