Plan B is now enacted.
Josh Donaldson chose the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, according to multiple reports. The good news for the Nationals? He's out of the division. The bad news? He's not on their roster. Which means they are stuck with maybes at a position manned by a National League MVP finalist last season. They also need to figure out who will be hitting third. Welcome to Team Matchup.
Donaldson would have sunk his flamboyant play right into the slot vacated by Anthony Rendon. A quality defender would operate at third; a power right-handed bat would hit third, splitting lefties Adam Eaton and Juan Soto. Washington's lineup depth would be vast and potent.
Instead, they will spend much of the season with moving parts both in the field and within the lineup.
Candidates to hit third include Howie Kendrick, Trea Turner and Starlin Castro (the latter a suggestion from hitting coach Kevin Long when talking to NBC Sports Washington during the weekend).
Candidates to play third include Castro, Kendrick, Carter Kieboom and Asdrúbal Cabrera. None have played there extensively. None have played at an upper level in their limited appearances. Kieboom, in particular, is managing a significant learning curve at the position. He made nine starts (10 appearances) and four errors at the position when dabbling late in the season for Triple-A Fresno. Castro was forced over there by Miami for 42 starts last season. Cabrera has been in the major leagues for 13 years. He's played third base in 165 games.
Kieboom said he's been working at second and third during the offseason. He gained weight --15, 20 pounds -- and feels comfortable at third. His statements are standard. Spring training will prove if they are accurate.
Castro echoed the idea he is comfortable there, too, after being forced into work last year.
"Never even practiced before," Castro said. "I never played third before, not even in the minor leagues. Then I was doing well, I was doing good. It was kind of scary the first two games, then just started to feel comfortable out there. I feel really comfortable at second base, but I know I can play third, too."
Davey Martinez will manage an aging carousel this year. His lineup followed a standard format once players returned healthy in June. Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Rendon and Juan Soto were installed almost every day of the season once all four were healthy. Victor Robles played 155 games and hit eighth most of the time. In between was the catching platoon, the second baseman of the day, and whoever was healthy enough to play first.
What the Nationals have heading to Florida is versatility and a lack of clarity.
Ryan Zimmerman's return is all but assured by Donaldson signing in Minnesota. He will be the final infield piece to mix-and-match with. He'll platoon at first base with Eric Thames, who will operate as a left-handed power bat off the bench when not starting. Zimmerman is the likely starter at first base. Kendrick will show up there, too, from time to time.
Castro will split time between second and third with most of his starts likely coming at second. Cabrera will be plugged in as necessary at first, second or third. He's also an interesting switch-hit option off the bench.
Kieboom is a curiosity. He was caught on the negative conveyor belt during his brief appearance last season. What went wrong in the field was brought to the plate, which was brought to the field, and on and on. It's the way baseball often eats its young, and key members of the Nationals' organization were surprised it was the mental challenges which hit Kieboom as much as or more than the competition jump.
Mike Rizzo has not put prospects on the roster in the past just to watch. So, if Kieboom leaves West Palm Beach with the team, it will be to play.
The infield defense as a whole will take a significant step back by replacing Rendon with any of the current options. Turner is an above-average fielder at shortstop. He also plays every day. Zimmerman is one of the best scoopers in the league at first. Second base will be average or worse defense. Third? It could be cringeworthy at times, especially for those who marveled at Rendon for years.
This is where Martinez will do the largest chunk of his managing. Boosting the bullpen with Daniel Hudson and Will Harris clarified the back end. The starting rotation is turnkey. But, manipulating matchups and tussling with age is now the key to an older roster filled with good, but not great, players. Donaldson would have made things as easy as they could be. Instead, the Nationals are counting on system, depth and hope that enough of last year's magic will be around this year.
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