Life after Rendon: Part 3

By: Joe Pohoryles

The 2020 season is a few months away, and while fans will be celebrating the title all summer long until it must be defended next October, a major piece of that championship team will not be here for the party.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon was the team’s best positional player, and arguably the best overall. In 2019, he was an NL MVP finalist, he led the majors in RBI, and was selected to the inaugural All-MLB First Team. He provided clutch hitting and stellar defense through the season and the playoff run.

But after he refused to sign the seven-year, $210-215 million contracted offered by the Nats earlier this season, he entered free agency, eventually agreeing to a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels near the beginning of free agency, and just like that, Tony Two Bags was out the door.

With a roster looking to repeat, in a division where their rivals have made moves looking to take the next step, a suitable replacement is crucial if the Nats want to make the playoffs. Nobody will be able to fully replace Rendon, but as of right now, the team essentially has three options. In three separate installments, I will evaluate these three options, so here is Part 3:

If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

If you missed Part 2, you can find it here.

Option 3: Find a suitable in-house replacement

Photo Credit: yardbarker.com

If the Nats find themselves out of high-quality options near the beginning of spring training, they will have to act fast, without much to work with. With top 20 prospect Carter Kieboom expected to join the lineup in 2020, is it possible he’s the Nationals’ new starting third baseman?

Probably not. While his natural position is shortstop, Trea Turner has that on lockdown, and it’s been widely assumed for quite some time that Kieboom is coming up to be the main second baseman.

In this scenario, Josh Donaldson is no longer available, and Kris Bryant is off the table, so the next best available third base option on the free agent market is arguably a player who won the World Series with the team this past October.

While he barely played third base for the Nats last season, switch-hitting INF Asdrúbal Cabrera has experience on the hot corner. Cabrera was a solid middle-of-the-lineup bat, and played strong defense through the entire playoffs, albeit at second base.

One positive is that he’s 34 years old, and the Nats likely would not have to pay him an exorbitant amount of money. But a negative is… he’s 34 years old. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to re-sign at 35 years old, and Howie Kendrick is turning 37 in July. With no solid third base option, it would be risky to play any of these guys in that position full-time from a defensive standpoint. (Granted, Donaldson is 34, but there’s recent evidence he can play well at third, unlike the current Nats’ infielders).

Distribution of games in each infield position during 2019

Though Cabrera played 98 games at third last season, just five came with the Nationals. Kieboom started 10 games at shortstop in the majors in 2019, the rest of his games came in MiLB. (Infographic by Joe Pohoryles; Information from Baseball-Reference)

Zimmerman of course spent many years as the Nats’ third baseman, so he has experience there, but those days seem far behind him. He likely won’t be the everyday first baseman, much less play third. Kendrick has very little history at third and, while he did play 15 games there last season, is too much of a defensive liability to be the starter there, so Cabrera appears to be the best option of the three.

If Cabrera has to start, the team’s batting will most certainly take a hit, as he does not have the same offensive upside as Donaldson or Bryant. The defense would not improve either, but the team could decide to mix around their options in the infield before finding the best fit.

If it turns out Kieboom does play third, would that mess with his development as the second baseman of the future? Would Cabrera be able to hold up at third or would they have to bring in another guy to platoon with him? The bottom line is this option is the worst case scenario for the prospects of the team’s season, and leaves much more questions than it does answers.

Projected infield in this scenario:

1B: Ryan Zimmerman*/Howie Kendrick

2B: Carter Kieboom/Asdrúbal Cabrera*/Howie Kendrick

SS: Trea Turner

3B: Asdrúbal Cabrera*/Carter Kieboom

*=currently free agent

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