As comfortable as the Washington Nationals seem to be with their post-Bryce Harper mix in the outfield, which will likely feature Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton left-to-right on Opening Day (with Michael A. Taylor on the bench as a fourth outfielder), there are some reasons for concern ... assuming the 2010 No. 1 overall pick does sign elsewhere, which, uh, is like a foregone conclusion at this point... right?
Nationals’ Manager Davey Martinez was asked this winter how the team knows that Robles, 21, and the top prospect in the organization, is ready to make the jump? Robles has put up an impressive .300/.392/.457 line in 384 games on his way up through the affiliates and he has shown flashes of the sort of five-tool talent scouts have touted during his limited time up in the majors thus far (.277/.337/.506 in 93 plate appearances over two seasons), but the Nats are expecting him to jump right in on Opening Day (assuming he beats out Taylor for the spot in Spring Training).
So how do they know he’s ready? They don’t. But they think he is. Martinez acknowledged as much when he was asked about Robles’s development this winter.
“How did we know Soto was going to be our everyday left fielder?” he asked rhetorically at the Winter Meetings.
“Just go out and let them play and he’ll dictate how much he’ll play. We got Soto last year, I sat with [GM Mike Rizzo] in the office, thinking we’ll play him against righties, give him days off, play him two or three times a week. I put him in the first game and never took him out. I had to beg him to take one day off. And he drove me nuts that one day, so I put him back in and never took him out again.”
[ed. note - “Soto ended up posting a .279/.360/.486 line vs lefties in 2018.”]
Third base coach Bob Henley, who also working with the Nats’ outfielders under Martinez, talked excitedly about both Soto and Robles when he was asked this winter if he had any concerns about throwing 20 and -21-year-olds out there as two-thirds of the outfield.
“I think ‘exciting’ is probably the word,” Henley said. “You watch those guys run around out there and play and run bases and they can play a little bit. I think it’s more exciting for me.
“I think the challenge would be making sure that you give them the information that they need to perform that night and in the series and a foundation for the course of the year that we abide by, but you still allow them the opportunity to play the game, to where you’re not giving them so much information that all of a sudden they’re locking up to play.”
“Because they need to have freedom to play,” he added. “And Juan Soto, he’s got to have some freedoms to him, you know, so it’s kind of, ‘Hey, Juan, you need to do a little bit of that,’ Juan Soto needs to be right here kind of — that’s Juan. So freeing him up and making sure he’s in a good spot mentally to go have success, because he can flat out play, and he’s a hard worker and I think it’s going to be a fun year watching all these kids.”
In the short time they had together late last season, when Robles was called up after they’d left him in the minors to get as many at bats as possible since he missed time with an elbow injury early in the minor league season, Hitting Coach Kevin Long said he saw signs that left him impressed with how the young outfielder was able to take advice and apply it.
“I kind of let Victor be Victor for a minute or two,” Long said, “... then the coach in me kind of takes over, and what I saw was a couple adjustments that he needed to make, 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.”
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 in 21 games and 66 PAs in the majors in September, going 17 for 59 (.288/.348/.525) to finish out the season.
Soto, in one of the best seasons by a teenager in MLB history, finished with a .292/.406/.517 line, 25 doubles, 22 home runs, 79 walks, 99 Ks, and 146 wRC+ in a 3.7 fWAR campaign, collecting the second-most homers and posting the third-highest average, third-highest slugging percentage, highest wRC+, the most walks, fourth-most RBIs, and the highest OBP, OPS, OPS+ (142), and wOBA (.392) of any teenaged player in major league history.
There are, of course, questions about Eaton as well.
Eaton has struggled to stay healthy since he was acquired by the Nationals in a 3-for-1 trade with the White Sox which sent pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning to Chicago in the winter of 2016.
Though Eaton put up a .300/.394/.422 line with the Nats thus far, he’s done so over just 118 games and 477 PAs in two seasons, blowing out his knee and injuring his ankle after only 23 games in 2017, before struggling with ankle issues which required surgery and limited him to just 95 games and 370 PAs last season.
He told reporters on Wednesday that he’s 100% healthy this winter and looking forward to playing a full season in D.C., provided Bryce Harper doesn’t sign and force a trade that will open up a spot for him in right field, something Eaton admitted he has thought about as a slow free agent market stretches into the start of Spring Training, with Harper unsigned as of this moment.
It’s out of his control of course, so he’s focused on what he can control, which is his own preparation for his third season in the nation’s capital.
“You’ll manage your whole life with this injury,” he said of the ACL tear and ankle injury, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“But there’s been no rehabilitation this offseason. It’s been strength. A normal offseason. But continued body maintenance. We’ve talked at length the last two years about how this will give longevity to my career because I’m forced to do more body maintenance and take a lot more time out for that. It’s been a focus on making sure I’m ready, and probably in a better way than I have been in the past. It’s been a good strengthening offseason, and I feel strong. I’m just ready to get after it.”
Are you as comfortable as the Nationals seem to be going forward with Soto, Robles, and Eaton if that ends up being the Opening Day outfield? Has Harper signed somewhere yet?
[ed. note - “Don’t @ me Michael A. Taylor fans. He’ll be a great fourth outfielder. Probably.”]