If the Washington Nationals have any concerns about sending their 21-going-on-22-year-old outfielder Victor Robles and 20-year-old outfielder Juan Soto out there on an everyday basis this season, they aren’t sharing those concerns publicly. Quite the opposite, actually.
Robles struggled with a couple fly balls in Grapefruit League action, but before the start of the regular season opener on Thursday, Davey Martinez said they’d discussed those issues with the rookie outfielder.
“Absolutely, we worked on it,” the Nationals’ second-year skipper said.
“He was out there every day with [third base and outfield coach Bob Henley]. We had the machine set up, we put him directly underneath the sun, and we taught him how to try to get around the baseball, to see if it comes out.
“Hey, I’ve been out there, sometimes the balls don’t come out and it’s pretty much a big hang-with-’em.”
Martinez penciled Robles in as the Nationals’ No. 9 hitter in the opener, which GM Mike Rizzo said made sense considering the outfielder’s skill set, and the roster options.
“We’ve kind of built him for this opportunity, for this day,” Rizzo told reporters when he spoke on the field before Game 1 of 162.
“When you look at how minor league numbers correspond to big league numbers, he’s a guy who has had great success in the minor leagues, gets on base a lot, hits for a high average. We know that the skill set that he has, the speed, is not matched by many players in the league. He throws extremely well, he’s got great defensive range and instincts. He’s a good baserunner. He’s got sneaky power that I think he’s going to grow into more consistently, and [he’s] a good hitter.
“So, I think that the idea of having kind of a second leadoff hitter at the bottom of that lineup can really jumpstart the lineup by him being a good, solid, on-base percentage guy, really kind of ramping it up for Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, and the middle of that lineup. It makes Trea a little bit more of a production guy rather than a table-setter, and I think that both Adam and Trea and the middle of that lineup are both going benefit from him running around the bases.”
Soto, though a year younger, got considerably more experience at the major league level in 2018, taking advantage of an opportunity that would likely have gone to Robles had he been available when the Nationals needed an outfielder last May.
Soto went on to put together one of the best seasons by a teenager in major league history.
He played in 116 games total last season, but got to experience his first Opening Day this week.
“You look back and you think he’s a fixture,” Rizzo said, “and a part of the furniture here in the big leagues, but yeah, there’s no doubt, he’s come a long way really fast, and I think in my opinion [he] has handled himself professionally every step along the way, and his skill set plays, and the bat plays, and he’s a guy that had a real focus this offseason and in Spring Training to get better defensively, and the work he’s put in behind the scenes is something that is really commendable, and I think you’re going to see a really good performance defensively in left field, and obviously he’s going to be a big anchor in the middle of that lineup, and we’re going to be counting on him and I think he’s going to take to the pressure really well.”
“It’s truly exciting for him,” Martinez said of Soto’s first Opening Day. “Everyone knows Juan, he’s kind of level-headed all the way around, so he’s just excited to be out there and he’s going to do his thing. We told him, ‘Hey, nothing changes for you.’ He has a great approach to the game, and he’s very excited and he gets to play alongside one of his buddies, Victor Robles, who is also young and also very excited for his first Opening Day.”
Both of the outfielders had some issues in the 2-0 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday.
Robles doubled off Jacob deGrom in his first at bat of the 2019 campaign, lining a 92 MPH, 3-2 slider off the wall in left field on a hop, and took third on an Adam Eaton single, but he froze on a grounder to third one out later, taking a step back towards the bag, then trying for home when Mets’ third baseman Jeff McNeil threw to second for a force.
Robinson Canó got the out at second, then threw home to start a rundown and what went in the scorebook as an inning-ending 5-4-2-5 double play that wasted one of the few shots the Nationals had to score against deGrom.
Soto walked the first time up, but was stranded, and he struck out in his second trip to the plate this season, struggling to recognize the defending NL Cy Young winner’s changeup.
The changeup got Soto again in the sixth when he struck out swinging with Trea Turner on third base and one out, chasing a full-count change that was just out of the zone, low and outside.
Both outfielders made contact, but lined out in their final at bats of the game, going 1 for 6 overall on the day.
Martinez acknowledged after the game that the baserunning gaffe by Robles was a rookie mistake.
“That’s just a young baserunning mistake by him,” the manager said. “We talked about it. He knows just to run, stay out of the double play. We’ll have Soto coming up if he runs into an out, but we’ve got a man on first and second.”
Martinez said he talked to Robles about the mistake and made sure he understood what he did wrong.
“I think as soon as the ball was hit he kind of froze a little bit and decided to go back.”
“To be honest, I got a little confused after I saw the ball hit off the bat,” Robles said, “but it’s a learning moment, we’ve got to learn from this and get better and move on.”
“I got a little confused,” he added, “and in the middle of the moment I realized I had made a mistake, so I tried to kind of make up for it.”
Soto’s takeaways from his struggles with deGrom, against whom he’s now 1 for 5 with a walk and two Ks.
“Just keep working, keep working the same [way] I’ve been doing,” Soto said. “I just saw a couple pitches, he tried to be down in the zone really good, and just try to find a way next time.”
Robles did hit the double, of course, and he made a diving play in center field. So how did he experience his first Opening Day overall?
“I felt great,” he said. “Felt great to be out there. First I’d like to give God thanks for giving me the ability and the health to be a part of this moment, and as well, secondly, to the Nationals for giving me this opportunity, and it’s one of those moments that you’re going to remember for the rest of your career, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Soto was asked if he felt any pressure to produce now that he’s being counted on as a middle of the order bat since the last phenom in the outfield in the nation’s capital has moved on to Philadelphia.
“Not much pressure on me, because we’re a team, not just one player coming out here and play a game, it’s nine players going out and keep fighting, keep working.”
There are going to be growing pains with two relatively inexperienced outfielders as part of the trio along with Adam Eaton, but the Nationals are confident Soto and Robles are ready.