“I kind of let Victor be Victor for a minute or two, then the coach in me kind of takes over,” Washington Nationals’ hitting coach Kevin Long said when asked about the month at the end of the 2018 campaign he had to work with top prospect Victor Robles.
“What I saw was a couple adjustments that he needed to make,” Long continued, “... and he made them on the fly, and he was able to take it into the game, and I was like, ‘Woah, that’s special.’ So that excites me.”
Robles, who suffered a hyperextension of his left elbow four games in at Triple-A Syracuse last summer, returned to the field in early July and finished out the minor league season in upstate New York before joining the Nationals for the last few weeks of the season.
Having missed significant at bats, the outfielder went to the Dominican Winter League and played for Aguilas Cibaenas, posting a .265/.345/.316 line with two doubles and a home run in 25 games and 110 plate appearances.
“I know his Winter ball was very, very good, and he was excited about that,” Long said when he spoke to reporters at Nationals’ Winterfest on Saturday, “... and he said he was just doing some of the things that we had worked on throughout the year. I think he hit — I don’t know how many home runs in Triple-A, but it was pretty close to the same amount in the big leagues, and some of the adjustments we made, his power was going to come back. So I’m excited to get more time with him, to spend more time with him, and to tap into his overall potential.”
In 52 games and 226 PAs in the minors in 2018, Robles put up a combined .276/.371/.370 line with 10 doubles and two home runs, then he hit three doubles and three home runs over 21 games and 66 PAs with the Nationals in September, going 17 for 59 (.288/.348/.525) to finish out the season.
Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez, who was impressed with what he saw from Robles in the last month of the season, told reporters late in the 2018 campaign that he thought the power would return for Robles once he was fully healed.
“It might take this winter for it to really heal,” Martinez said, as quoted by the Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty, “but I think the power numbers will come.”
“I really agree with what he said,” Robles told reporters, through a translator, when he too spoke at Winterfest this weekend.
“I feel a hundred percent now and I feel like that power is back, it’s there. Just that it feels really good now.”
He also said that he was really happy with the way he played in Winter ball, and the level of competition he saw in the DWL.
“It’s a league I would really compare to ours here,” Robles said, “... just because you have pitchers from all over. You’ve got some big league pitchers, you’ve got pitchers from the Mexican League. So it’s pretty tough. I think the experience I got there was really good. I worked hard and I liked it.”
Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said on Saturday that he thinks Robles is ready for the job in center field if that’s what ends up happening, though Michael A. Taylor is in the mix and a certain free agent outfielder’s decision on where to sign could play a role in deciding who is in the outfield on Opening Day.
“I think Victor is ready to play baseball,” Martinez said diplomatically when asked if Robles is ready to take over in center if Bryce Harper signs elsewhere this winter.
“He’s itching to play. We’ll see how that transpires. Hey look, we’ve got another guy Michael A. Taylor that I think will bounce back, I really do. He’s going to work with K-Long this winter and cut down on strikeouts, and hopefully those two will fight for the job.”
“I feel ready for what’s to come,” Robles said.
“Just a little extra time I’ve had to get a little more experience, I feel like I’ve seen so many plays on the field that it’s given me that experience. Also, just having the patience to get through the games and kind of slow things down. I’m ready for what’s to come in the years ahead.”
That’s not to say that he isn’t aware that there is room for improvement, impressive as he’s been since the Nationals signed him for a $225,000 signing bonus in 2013.
“This is a game where you’re really learning stuff daily,” Robles said.
“You’re always going to be learning, every single day you take something away. For me, in general, I’m always just going to work on everything. I feel really confident in my skills, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always going to push for a little bit extra, a little bit more.”
He’s also had some good role models to learn from in Harper, and even Juan Soto, who’s a year younger than Robles, but broke out given an opportunity last season when Robles was unavailable after the injury and there was a need in D.C.
What did he see from Soto’s run that impressed him?
“Oh man, his patience,” Robles beamed.
“He’s a novice, but he’s out there, looking like he’s been around for 10-15 years. Just seeing the way he works pitchers, the way he works his bat, it’s stuff that I really observed him with that so I can take away from that.”
As for what he learned from Harper?
“He’s just a great teammate,” Robles said.
“He’s just been such a big help overall. On the field, he would pull me aside and we’d go over plays – maybe not even a play that one of us were involved in – but he’d point out something someone else did and just teach me from that moment.
“He taught me a lot of patience at the plate as well. Off the field, he’s a really great example of how to be with the fans. So I took that away from him.”
Whatever the Nationals ask of him and throw at him this season, Robles said he’ll be ready for it, whether he wins the starting job on Opening Day or not.
“I sort of go in with the mindset that I’m going to work hard regardless. Whatever happens, happens.”