If you were in the vague vicinity of West Palm Beach last Saturday, you probably heard the moment that Victor Robles arrived at the Washington Nationals’ Spring Training facility.
As usual, the young outfielder was overflowing with energy as he arrived a few days before position players were set to report, ready to get back into the swing of things after a memorable rookie season.
“I was having a nice quiet morning ... coffee, reading a little bit. He just came in really loud,” manager Dave Martinez said jokingly, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman. “That’s who he is. He brings a lot of energy. I love him. He’s just that kind of kid.
“Actually, all kidding aside, I’m excited that he’s here and I’m excited that he’s ready to go. He looks great. He’s excited to be here.”
In the past, Spring Training has usually meant that Robles has been the young prospect trying to prove himself and break camp in the majors. But for the first time in his career, he’s coming into major league camp assured of a starting spot in center field.
This time, it’s his spot in the batting order that is far from set in stone.
Last season, Robles hit in the bottom third of the lineup in 110 of his 147 starts. However, that was a lineup that had Anthony Rendon, providing it with much more length than it has now.
With the challenge of filling the void of their former third baseman ahead of them, Martinez is considering sliding leadoff hitter Trea Turner to third in the order.
That leaves the top spot up for grabs and Robles will have a chance to claim it this spring.
“I want to see how Robles reacts hitting at the top of the order,” Martinez said on Wednesday.
“If he can start honing in on the strike zone and taking his walks, we could have — can you imagine just having [Robles], [Adam] Eaton, Turner, [Juan] Soto, I think that’s pretty dynamic.”
Lo and behold, on Martinez’s first 2020 lineup card for tonight’s game against the Houston Astros, Robles is right there at the top ahead of Michael A. Taylor and Juan Soto.
Tomorrow’s lineup today. pic.twitter.com/tvrKdcsUJZ— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) February 21, 2020
Based on raw tools, the fit makes sense and is tantalizing for the manager to think about.
“I think up at the top he could make things happen, [get] things going if he gets on base,” Martinez explained. “We’ll try it early and see how it works out and we’ll go from there.
“But I think this year he’s going to be a lot better at the plate than he was last year. He learned a lot last year, so we’ll see what happens.”
The top of the order is obviously the long-term home for Robles. He is among the quickest players in baseball and has shown the ability to hit for average and power in the minor leagues while also being able to get on-base at an above-average clip.
Last season, however, Robles slashed .255/.326/.419 with 17 home runs, a 5.7 % walk-rate, and 22.7 % strikeout-rate. Solid, especially for a rookie, but not exactly leadoff material yet.
Without too much depth in the lineup as things stand, the Nats are going to need to squeeze out every bit of production possible from the top half of the order. That means a leadoff hitter with an on-base percentage better than Robles produced last season.
So, what exactly will Martinez and the rest of the coaching staff be looking for this spring to convince them that Robles is ready for leadoff duties...
“We’ve talked a lot about: 1. His two-strike approach, and 2. is actually his early contact and putting the ball in play early, so when he gets a good pitch to hit instead of fouling it off, try to put it in play,” Martinez said.
“He did that in the minor leagues, so if we get those two things squared away I think his on-base percentage will definitely go higher.”
But even though the Nationals want to see a more measured approach from Robles if they want him to occupy the top spot in the order, they also don’t want him to get too far away from his aggressive approach that helped him come through in big spots.
“I do not want to take away his aggressiveness because that’s just who he is,” Martinez explained.
“We talked about that with Trea as well. When we moved Trea up when he started leading off, he was so worried about getting on base, and we were like, ‘Hey, you are who are you are. You’re going to get on base, but do not take away your aggressiveness. That’s just who you are.”
If it doesn’t work out for Robles this spring, then the Nats will be more than happy to revert back to the highly successful 1-2 punch of Turner and Eaton at the top of the order.
That could then lead to Starlin Castro jumping right into the top half of the order, or Soto moving up to third and Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick, or Ryan Zimmerman along with Castro rotating in the cleanup spot behind the young phenom.
This is one of the benefits of Spring Training, allowing managers to try things out with little consequence before the games start to matter.
The audition for the leadoff spot for Robles begins today. How he performs there in the coming weeks will likely have a significant bearing on how the Nationals' lineup looks on Opening Day when they begin the defense of their World Series title...