Would Juan Soto have gotten the call earlier this season if Victor Robles hadn’t suffered a hyperextended left elbow which kept him out of action between early April and early July?
Robles was playing in Triple-A to start the season, and had experience in the majors, so he likely would have been the choice when help was needed if not for the injury.
Soto received the opportunity instead, and the 19-year-old outfielder seized it, and claimed a spot in the Washington Nationals’ outfield, playing pretty much every day since he got the call.
Robles, the No. 1 prospect coming into the 2018 campaign on every list of the organization’s top talent, (though a number of scouts speculated over the last year or so that Soto might overtake him), finally got back to the big leagues after working his way back from the injury and posting a .276/.371/.370 line with 10 doubles and two home runs in 52 games and 226 plate appearances between the Gulf Coast, New York/Penn and International leagues.
The time Robles missed didn’t do anything to dampen the enthusiasm Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the front office have for the outfielder, who was called up once the minor league season came to an end last week.
“He’s a guy that plays really, really fast, and has speed to burn and has learned to hit as his minor league career has progressed,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies this past Wednesday.
“He is a consummate center fielder,” Rizzo continued when asked where Robles would play now that he is up. “Great range, great angles, great defense and he can really play it.”
Soto has impressed and put himself in the conversation for the NL Rookie of the Year, but the General Manager was clear that Robles remains one of the game’s top prospects as well.
“He’s one of the top prospects in baseball, in all of baseball, if not the top prospect,” Rizzo said, “and you put him side by side with Soto and you’ve got yourself a dynamic duo of 20-somethings that can really play.”
Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters earlier this week, after penciling Soto and Robles into the lineup alongside Bryce Harper, how excited he was to have all three of the young outfielders out there together.
“I kind of was joking around,” Martinez said, “... and I saw Soto and Robles out there and I called them two young spike bucks and I called Harper an elk. And that’s what it was kind of like watching those three guys out there, so it was a lot of fun and I think they really enjoyed playing with each other.”
Robles was atop the Nationals’ lineup, leading off for the series finale with the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, though the game never was played due to inclement weather. Martinez talked to reporters before the game about what he wanted to see from Robles as the leadoff man.
“The sky’s the limit with him,” Martinez said, as quoted by MLB.com’s Jamal Collier. “He’s got potentially five tools. We’ve seen everything he can do. We’ll see where he ends up, but if he can get on base, it would be nice to have him up there.”
The first-year manager was asked at another point this weekend if he’d offered any advice to Robles now that the 21-year-old is up in the majors again.
“I want him to play,” Martinez said. “We’ll have a lot of conversations about things he does, but I really just want him to go play and just go out there and have fun, and I told him, ‘Hey, go out there and showcase yourself. That’s what you’re here to do right now. And just go have fun doing it.’ He’s got unbelievable tools, and just watching him run around and how he handles himself, he’s a professional and he’s just like Soto, he loves to play the game.”
Robles’s enthusiasm is contagious apparently, and Martinez said he likes what the outfielder brings to the field and the dugout.
“He brings a lot energy,” he explained. “One thing I like about him, he loves to play and he’s very vocal in the dugout too and he’s always cheering and he pays attention to the game, and I tell him, ‘Hey, just go out there and do the little things and have fun,’ and just watching him move around and play the game it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
During Thursday night’s series opener with the Chicago Cubs, one of the more impressive displays of Robles’s talent came on a fly to right-center off David Bote’s bat that he didn’t actually get to, though he showed off his range even getting close to the ball, which fell in for an RBI double that put the visiting team ahead in extras.
Martinez said after the loss that he was surprised to see Robles even get close, when he was asked if he thought the young outfielder might actually make the play.
“At first, when it was hit, no, and then as I saw him closing in, I thought, ‘Oh, man, he might actually get to the ball,’ you know, and he did, and the ball kept fading away from him, but man he’s got unbelievable closing speed. He plays really shallow too, which kind of scares me a little bit, but he was really shallow.”
The Nationals will give Robles opportunities over the next few weeks to keep showing what he can do, and they’ll get a glimpse of what the outfield of the future might look. But more important for Robles, who missed significant time this season, is getting the at bats he did not get while he was out as he continues his own progression and works towards becoming part of the every day outfield in the nation’s capital.
Who will be playing alongside Soto in left and Robles in center in 2019 and beyond? That’s a question that will likely be answered this winter.