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Washington Nationals’ 2019 Outfield: The future is now....

Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez were on MLB Network Radio on Thursday talking up young outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If the Washington Nationals’ brass has any reservations about sending 20 and 21-year-olds out as two-thirds of their Opening Day outfield, (which is the plan, barring an insurgent run by Michael A. Taylor), they aren’t showing it. Maybe they have good poker faces. Though, in an MLB Network Radio interview on Thursday afternoon, GM Mike Rizzo said he really does not have a good poker face*.

In separate interviews from West Palm Beach, FL, both Rizzo and skipper Davey Martinez talked about going with Juan Soto in left and Victor Robles in center (with Adam Eaton in right field) in the Nationals’ post-Bryce Harper 2019 outfield.

Soto, 20, burst on the scene last season. He was called up in mid-May, and ended up with some of the best numbers put up by a teenaged player in MLB history.

As a 19-year-old, Soto put up 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, the third-highest average, third-highest slugging percentage, highest wRC+, most walks, the fourth-most RBIs, and the highest OBP, OPS, OPS+ (142), and wOBA (.392) of any teenaged player in major league history.

“What [Soto] did last year was amazing in my mind,” Rizzo told hosts Jim Bowden and Steve Phillips.

“And I think he’s hell-bent on getting better and improving. Offensively, we like his game. He sees a lot of pitches. He knows the strike zone. He’s got power. He’s a high-average, high-power guy, and he came into Spring Training after his stint with the team in Japan, he was hell-bent on being a Gold Glove-caliber left fielder. He’s worked really hard this offseason to improve his throwing arm and his reads and routes in the outfield, and of course left field is a very difficult outfield position to play, and I could see him improving as the year went on and I think he’s going to take that to the next level also.”

The myth of Soto says he never played left field before. says that he did play seven games in left, five of them in 2018. Martinez too said that it’s where they’re all focused this Spring when they try to see what they can improve on with the young slugger.

“For me it’s not really the hitting portion of it,” Martinez explained. “We talked to him about that because, of course, everybody says, ‘Sophomore jinx, you got this, you got that, they’re going to pitch you different,’ we don’t want him to think about that stuff. We just want him to go out there and just do the same thing he did last year. Just take his walks, which is key.”

“And I told him,” the manager continued. “I said, ‘You’re a doubles hitter, you’re going to hit homers, but you’re a doubles hitter, gap to gap, that’s who you are, the biggest thing is I want you to get better on your defense and be the best baserunner — not the best base stealer — you can possibly be, and work on those things, because the other things will happen.

“He’s one of the best young hitters I’ve seen. Like I said, he knows the strike zone. He makes adjustments on the fly.

“He’ll come to you and tell you, ‘Hey, this guy is pitching me backwards so I’m going to have to think that way,’ and go up there the next at bat and hit a ball up the middle.

“His approach every day, before he comes to the game, he shakes my hand, gives me a hug, and I say, ‘What do you got today?’ And he says, ‘Four lines drives up the middle.’

“And that’s the way he thinks.”

Rizzo made the decision to bring Soto up, after Howie Kendrick went down with a season-ending achilles injury, and with Robles injured and unavailable, and he said it was a matter of Soto’s makeup (and obvious talent) allowing him to take advantage of the opportunity.

“His makeup and personality, it’s really, and I don’t say this easily, he’s one of the greatest makeup players I’ve ever signed out of the Dominican Republic,” Rizzo said.

“This guy gets it. He’s good, he wants to be great. He works extremely hard, he’s extremely respectful, and a guy that came into this season not expecting to be in the big leagues, we didn’t expect him to be in the big leagues that quickly. We brought him to the big leagues by necessity. Eight games beyond A-ball, never playing the position of left field before in his life, and went in the big leagues and we threw him in left field and he hit in the middle of the lineup that was trying to compete for a championship.”

Now the Nationals are hoping Robles can step in too, and play his part in what the GM and his manager think is a team that can compete for an NL East crown.

Robles, 21, put up a combined .276/.371/.370 line with 10 doubles and two home runs in 52 games and 226 PAs in the minors in 2018, and 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) after he was called up at the end of the minor league season.

He was the highest-ranked outfielder in the organization going into 2018, and likely would have gotten the call over Soto if he’d been available in May.

“[Robles] is a tool box,” Rizzo said when asked for a scouting report on the outfielder.

“He can do a lot of things on the field that are amazing. He’s an elite runner. He’s an elite defender. He’s got a great throwing arm. He’s got sneaky power that he’s just coming into. And he’s proven. His track record in the minor leagues is he’s a high on-base percentage guy. He doesn’t strike out a lot, and he’s the type of guy that we need to keep on the field, but if we keep him on the field, we think that we’re going to have ourselves, early on in his career, a real solid contributor with a chance to be really, really good at the end of his career.”

“What I see out of Victor is, he’s exciting,” Martinez said. “He makes things happen. Another guy too, I said, ‘Stay within yourself. Take your walks. Use your speed. Bunting is a good thing for you. Don’t believe all this stuff about SLG and all this that everybody talks about, we need you to get on base and we need you to play good defense, when you do those things we’re going to go places,’ and he, truly, this Spring he’s been doing that. He’s laid down some bunts. He’s gotten guys over. He’s hit, with two strikes he tries to hit the ball up the middle of the field. Since last year he’s matured a lot. I think him getting hurt last year kind of opened his eyes where as you can get things, and you can get things taken away.

“When he was hurt, he realized — he talked to me — he said, ‘When I was hurt, I realized, hey, I really miss this game. I need to improve — and I want to be in the big leagues.’”

[ed. note - “ * = Rizzo was talking about signing Patrick Corbin to a 6-year/$140M deal this winter when he said he doesn’t have a good poker face: ‘We were looking for a top-flight major league starting pitcher, the free agent route or the trade route. We focused in primarily on Patrick Corbin. My poker face isn’t great. We wanted him. We attacked and went after him as hard as we could, and we wanted to make sure that we acquired him. We let out all the stops to recruit him, and we paid him well, and we’re hoping that he’s the answer to really make our rotation elite.’”]