WOODBRIDGE — The kid they all came to see poked his head in the door of his manager’s office Tuesday afternoon, red, white and blue necklace round his neck, bat in his hand.
His manager with the Potomac Nationals, Tripp Kiester, gave him the thumbs up sign. Victor Robles returned it, and that seemed to be all Kiester needed to know. Robles was removed from last Thursday’s High Class-A game with leg tightness, a precaution, because one can never be too careful with the best prospect in an entire minor league system. On Monday afternoon, Robles was ready.
Vice President and Senior Adviser to the General Manager Bob Boone and Director of Player Development Mark Scialabba had made the trip from Washington just to be sure. Eventually, Scialabba poked his head into the office, too. He brought Robles with him.
A couple minutes later, Robles hurried out of the office and to the batting cage, like a kid recently freed from a parent-teacher conference, eager to go play with his friends. An hour or so later, the 19-year-old was back in the P-Nats’ lineup, serving as the designated hitter. As it happened, the game got rained out anyway — much ado about nothing for the moment, much ado about something that will matter a great deal to the Nationals sometime soon.
Boone, Scialabba and the rest make the rounds through the Nationals’ minor league system, so a stop in Woodbridge is nothing out of the ordinary. But the post-Adam Eaton trade reality of the Nationals’ organization is that its focal point lies somewhere between Woodbridge and Hagerstown, around Robles with the P-Nats, or Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom with the Low-A Suns.
Certainly, the Nationals have talent elsewhere. Many of the young players they signed during last year’s July 2 splurge have not even reached A-ball yet, and are pulling attention to the even lower levels of the system. More unheralded players emerge at all levels, each year, every season. Koda Glover, for example, was hardly a prospect when he began last season with Potomac. Then, all of a sudden, he was. Someone who began the year with the P-Nats has made it to the big leagues in each of the past two seasons. Wilmer Difo did it in 2015. Glover did it last season. Could Robles be the next?
Perhaps the question itself is irresponsible. Difo was 23 during his jump year. Glover was, too. Robles, one of the youngest players in the Carolina League by almost a full year last season, begins this season at 19.
“He’s just a kid playing baseball,” Kiester said. “He doesn’t think about the fact that he’s in Potomac or D.C. He’s just, ‘show me where the baseball game is. I’m going to go play, do what I do.’ ”
Robles played 41 games with the P-Nats last season, during which time he was hit by a pitch that broke his hand. He never seemed to recover his rhythm, and finished with a .262 average and .741 OPS. His career numbers, for reference, are .308 and .866.
The Carolina League itself could have contributed to the disparity. The league includes eight teams, which means the P-Nats play the same players over and over again. Teams and players adjust, much like they would in the majors, where information is readily available on almost everyone. Asked about that challenge Monday, Robles said he noticed teams starting to pitch him differently this time around, and is trying to adjust in turn. Before that minor leg trouble last week, Robles was hitting .357 with a 1.062 OPS in seven games, seemingly adjusting fairly well.
“He just does stuff each night, it’s pretty special,” Kiester said. “He does some things and you just think, ‘Huh.’ ”
Kiester remembered a day last week when Robles was on first base. His reputation as an aggressive base runner with speed to match preceded him, so the other team held him close, determined not to let him go. They held the ball. They threw over. Robles, undeterred, executed a perfect delayed steal instead.
“It’s one of the best delayed steals I’ve ever seen,” said Kiester laughing, palms to the sky. “I don’t know how you even stop that. If it was me on the other side, I was thinking, what would I even do?”
That fearless aggressiveness sometimes gets Robles into trouble on the bases, as it did once during his stint in major league spring training, when he was picked off second base. He is developing that complicated reputation for playing a little bit too hard, unafraid of walls and the consequences that come with them. The Nationals would rather that than the alternative. His energy on the field and off that makes Kiester, a fairly exuberant person in his own right, particularly enthusiastic about his young center fielder.
“He wants constant enrichment. He wants to learn. He wants to be great,” said Kiester, who said Robles often comes to the park asking to work on something new, whether it’s ground balls in the outfield or fly balls at the fence.
When Robles came back into the manager’s office to answer a few questions for The Post, Kiester brought up all the extra work. Robles, who spent most of the time looking down, answering in Spanish to his hitting coach Luis Ordaz, looked up and said, “That’s right.”
Then, when asked about the time he told Kiester his Spanish was “malo” on third base a few days back, the kid and that energy broke through.
“No, no, no!” Robles laughed, shaking his head as his manager chuckled.
“Now, you’re just being polite,” said Kiester, and Robles smiled. He smiled again when asked what he thought needed to improve to make himself ready for the big leagues, looked down, and paused as if he wished he could just say he were ready right now.
“I have to keep learning,” Robles said through Ordaz, exactly what a 19-year-old kid in A-ball is supposed to say, humble and true. But if Robles stays on the trajectory he’s established, he might just be ready sooner than later. Everyone will be watching closely in the meantime.