One of the questions Davey Martinez was asked most often last season?: Where will Bryce Harper sign?
Well, yes, ... okay, but one of the other frequently asked questions had to do with when the Washington Nationals’ top outfield prospects over the last few seasons would end up in the big leagues together, providing a glimpse of what the future outfield will look like in D.C.
Victor Robles, who hyperextended his left elbow last April and missed significant at bats at a crucial time in his development, and Juan Soto, whose meteoric rise last summer began, at least in part, because of the injury to Robles, finally got to share the outfield together late in 2018.
“People asked me last year, ‘When are we going to see those two guys play together?’” the Nationals’ skipper said on Monday, as position players joined pitchers and catchers in West Palm Beach, Florida for the full-on start of Spring Training.
“Well, guess what, you’re going to see a lot of them this year playing together, and it’s going to be fun.
“They get along really well, they understand each other, and I know they’re going to push each other to be really good.”
“We’ve always talked about it,” Robles said told MLB.com’s Jon Morosi last Spring, through interpreter Octavio Martinez.
“We’ve always said, ‘In three or four years, if we keep doing our thing, we’ll be up there together, side by side.’ We do talk about that a lot.”
The timing in their minds was a little off. Robles and Soto in the outfield in D.C. on a regular basis is going to happen sooner than later, barring any setbacks this Spring.
The 21 (Robles) and 20-year-old (Soto) outfielders will, in all likelihood, be penciled in as the center and left fielders, respectively, in the Nats’ Opening Day outfield, with Adam Eaton in right, unless Michael A. Taylor can win the starting job in center in Spring Training.
Martinez told reporters in the Nationals’ manager’s press availability on Monday, that he saw evidence of the bond between the two outfielders in the short time they were together after Robles was called back up to the majors last September.
“When Victor came up at the end [of 2018], I mean, there was a connection already there between him and Juan, there really was,” he said.
“They palled around together, they hung out together,” Martinez continued, “they started their own little handshake right away, and it was fun to watch.”
Soto was called up in May and stayed up through the end of the season, and he finished up with a .292/.406/.517 line, 25 doubles, 22 home runs, 79 walks, 99 Ks, and 146 wRC+ in a 3.7 fWAR campaign.
Robles put up a combined .276/.371/.370 line, 10 doubles and two home runs in 52 games and 226 plate appearances in the minors last season, then he hit three doubles and three home runs in 21 games and 66 PAs in the majors, going 17 for 59 (.288/.348/.525) to finish out the season.
He went to the Dominican Winter League as well, where he was 26 for 98 (.265/.345/.316) with two doubles and a home run in 25 games and 110 PAs.
“He looked fine,” Martinez said when asked about the scouting reports he got from Robles’s time with the Aguilas Cibaenas.
“He went through a lot last year with his injuries, and coming back, and he was in the big leagues, and he went and played winter ball. We actually kind of told him to stop playing and rest.”
Where does the manager see room for improvement in Robles’s game at this point? His power, which seemed to be somewhat diminished after the elbow injury?
“I’m not so worried about power numbers, the key for him is defense and running the bases well,” the manager said. “I’m not talking about just base stealing, I’m talking just overall baserunning stuff, not getting picked off, going first-to-third, scoring from second base all the time, and all those things.”
Martinez said much the same when it comes to Soto’s game. Having played minimal time in left field before he was called up, he still has some work to do with the glove on his hand.
“The biggest thing is just getting behind the baseball out in the outfield, continue to work on his throwing,” Martinez explained. “He wants to get better with his throwing, charging balls, and angles, working on angles. That’s something we want him to get better at, cause it will make the game easier for him.”
How will Soto handle the expectations of his sophomore campaign, after one of the best seasons by a teenager in MLB history?
And what are Martinez’s expectations for the now-20-year old outfielder?
“To me it’s just keeping him grounded, one, and get him to understand — the biggest thing for me is not to try to do more, and just go out there and like I said, he’s really good at taking his walks, and just playing the game. I want him to continue to have fun and just play the game. I told him, I said, don’t put any numbers in your head, just go out there and have fun like you did last year and just play the game.”
Where are the young outfielders likely to end up in the batting order? Soto took the majority of his at bats in the 5-spot last season, and Martinez said he’s likely to remain in the middle of the Nats’ lineup.
“We haven’t really honed in on one specific [spot], but he’s going to hit somewhere in the middle of the order,” Martinez said.
“We feel like he’s a guy that can extend innings, he can drive in a lot of runs, he’s going to hit home runs, so I really believe somewhere in the middle of the order will be good for him.”
“We’ll run the numbers and everything like that and see what’s best for him, but one thing I know for sure, if he’s healthy he’ll be out there every day, lefty or righty, and I’ll fight him when I have to give him a day off because he doesn’t want to have a day off, but he will have to get a day off here and there.”
“It’s tough to say, because he’s hit leadoff, he’s hit second, third, you know, and with our lineup, you look at our lineup right now and we’re pretty solid 1-8, we really are, and we might have him hit ninth and have that second leadoff hitter and let the pitcher hit eighth. We’ll toy around with different things this Spring with him and see where we get the most value out of him.”
BONUS SOTO SHUFFLE SECTION:
If you watched Juan Soto’s at bats closely last season (or at all, really), you probably noticed that the left-handed hitting slugger tends to shuffle his cleats in the dirt in an angry soon-to-be-charging bull sort of way after taking a pitch.
Here’s how Martinez described it:
“He’s such a good kid and understands the game, is very adamant about the game, as you see, the Soto Shuffle and all that stuff, but that’s something that was created by a lot of different people, but that’s his way to get into the next pitch and keeping him engaged. That’s all he does. I think he’s going to be fine, I really do.”
Is he concerned at all that some pitcher is going to take it the wrong way and send a pitch at Soto as a message it’s not okay?
“We talk a lot about it. But you know, they’ve got to understand that, like I said, it’s his way of keeping engaged in the at bat and getting to that next pitch. That’s all it is.
“He’s not showing anybody up. He’s not — we talked to him about it, and to a sense, we also told him, ‘Hey, look, every now and then — I know you get into the moment and you don’t realize you do it, but just back it down a little bit.”