Bear And Boom: Keys To The Nationals Future

Keibert Ruiz and Carter Kieboom are key to protecting Juan Soto.

With the exception of Juan Soto’s nonstop ascendance into MLB’s upper echelon of superstardom, the Washington Nationals’ World Series hangover has been severe. It’s a head-out-the-car-window, can’t-hide-it-from-mom-and-dad kind of hangover.

Their three-headed beast in the rotation is dismantled. Franchise stalwarts Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner both play in Los Angeles. Victor Robles, the centerpiece of their defense and Soto’s presumptive running mate, plays in Rochester.

The Nats’ front office is planning a quick turnaround to re-enter contention as soon as possible, but the details of that plan are sparse. Expectations for an immediate bounceback feel a shade optimistic, even in a seemingly weak NL East.

It’s an understandable goal, namely because after back-to-back losing seasons, the city is getting nervous. Not because there’s no trust in the organization or in Mike Rizzo’s front office, but because Soto will be a free agent after just three more seasons.

If Soto leaves as a free agent, the Nats may as well fold up shop and head back to Montreal. Considering the players that have departed in recent seasons, losing Soto would embed a deep and understandable mistrust in the fanbase – just as they’ve finally earned a little leash with the 2019 title. It doesn’t matter how long Ryan Zimmerman stays.

And yet, in all likelihood, 2022 is going to be a rebuilding season for the Nationals. A proper rebuild takes three to five seasons, so they need this redesign to look more like an expedited “retool.”

For that to happen, the Nationals are banking on the rapid development of two prospects in particular: Carter Kieboom and Keibert Ruiz.

 

1. Hit the Jackpot

 

The Nationals are used to hitting on their top prospects. They’ve had a poorly regarded farm system for many years, but their stars have mostly been homegrown. That formula has worked for Washington, despite poor team depth that would torpedo most franchises.

It works because their stars become stars. Soto is locked in, but as of right now, he’s their only long-term lineup cornerstone. Lane Thomas should be in the outfield mix for the foreseeable future, Riley Adams has the potential to be a solid backup catcher, and even Josh Bell is fine in his role for another season. But those are supplemental pieces. They’re second-division pieces.

With Robles appearing less and less like a building block piece, the Nats need Kieboom and Ruiz to hit. There aren’t other prospects coming soon who might develop into those types of cornerstone bats. If Ruiz and Kieboom don’t develop into above-average lineup regulars, the return to contention plan crumbles.

 

2. Invest in Pitching

 

The Nationals will have significant free agent money to spend, but they probably need to devote that money to pitching, as has been their pattern in the past. That’s particularly frustrating because they will use $59MM of their payroll on Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

Those two earned their money, and they’re forever heroes in Washington, but in terms of next season, it’s hard to get excited about Stras and Patty Ice. Combined, they’ve posted 0.1 fWAR this season, and if that’s the kind of production they get from this pair for the next three seasons, Rizzo and company have zero margin for error in their other roster spots.

It’s impossible to count on anything from Strasburg, but if you squint hard enough, it’s possible to imagine Corbin again presenting as a mid-rotation starter. He struggled this year, no doubt, but he was also forced to “wear it” a bit more than usual, evidenced by his 167+ innings. If the season ended today, he’d finish 29th overall in innings, which isn’t where you’d expect him to be given the efficiency struggles.

If manager Davey Martinez could protect Corbin a bit, his production should improve. But what other pitchers are going to be on the roster to make protecting Corbin a viable plan?

That’s what the free agency money is for. They’ll need to grab one of the free-agent shortstops from this year’s class to replace Turner, too, and beyond that they could use a bat for the other outfield corner. But most of their money should go to pitching.

 

3. Support Soto

 

They’re much closer on the offensive end. Their offense actually ranks 13th in the Majors by measure of fWAR, and while much of that can be attributed to Soto being Soto, he counts as part of the offense. The offense is tied for eighth in the Majors with a 102 wRC+, and they’re fifth by wOBA. Again, much of that is Soto, but that’s a testament to how little the Nats actually need to put around him. Still, they need more.

 

Part One: The Bear

 

That offense has begun to take shape in the past month or so, largely with the installation of Keibert Ruiz as their everyday catcher. Ruiz is a top prospect and the type of player who could very well end up being Soto’s true running mate in the lineup. It’s difficult to build around a catcher, however, given the time off they typically require.

Through his first 18 games in DC, he has brought an aggressive approach buoyed by elite bat-to-ball skills. He’s hitting .299/.347/.433 in 79 plate appearances, good for a 110 wRC+. This is a small sample, of course, but the key is that Ruiz is starting to look comfortable after a tough first couple of days. He’s putting the ball in play, knocking in runs, and occasionally driving the ball with real authority. Besides, the Nats devoted significant organizational equity in acquiring Ruiz: he has to be “their guy.”

I’m counting Ruiz as a win. He’s going to be their regular starting catcher next season, and he’s going to be above-average in that spot. If he puts up a full season with a 110 WRC+, he’d be a top-ten catcher, and that’s within reach. With defensive panache, that’s a cornerstone catcher.

 

Part Two: The Boom

 

While I’m bullish about the Bear part of this equation, I’m much more bearing about the Boom. Carter Kieboom has not looked comfortable at the Major League level. Not at the plate and not in the field. Players develop at different rates, so we can’t close the book on him yet.

2022 will be his last chance to prove that he’s an everyday regular for the Nats, and he’ll have to make his mark pretty early in the year. Davey likes his vets too much. If Kieboom isn’t producing, he’ll start to lose playing time to Alcides Escobar or Jordy Mercer or whatever vet they grab off the scrap heap next year.

Luis García is in a similar boat at second base, but he has a longer leash than Kieboom at third. Expectations weren’t as high for Garcia, and he’s younger. He’s also flashed some high-end skill both defensively and at the plate, though there’s still a ways to go.

Kieboom has a 10.0% walk rate, which is a solid number that he can build upon. He cut his strikeout rate to a more palatable 25.3%. A .258 BABIP suggests he could be having some bad luck, but he still needs to improve upon a measly .115 ISO – this after a historically impotent .010 ISO season in 2020.

The numbers are horrible, but the sample sizes are still relatively small. His Statcast numbers aren’t all that promising either, as he’s been below average in metrics like Hard Hit Percentage and Barrel Rate.

Defensively, he’s a disaster at the hot corner with -6 DRS and -11 OAA. By Outs Above Average, that puts him 45th out of 46 third basemen. You can stomach that kind of glovework from Rafael Devers, who has a 132 wRC+. It’s unacceptable from a player with a 72 wRC+ like Kieboom.

Given his playing time, the Nats’ belief in Kieboom is wavering. But Rizzo wants him to work out. The problem is that they’re not just waiting on one part of his game – they’re waiting on any part of his game.

Soto will be on base in forty percent of his plate appearances. Ruiz looks like he’ll put the ball in play. But the Nationals roster needs more boom. And if Carter isn’t going to get them there, they need another solution.

 

Photos by Mary Holt & Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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