On a day that should have been dreary, for the way the season was ending, for everything the Washington Nationals did not accomplish, Victor Robles had another idea.
Yet there was still one unanswered question after his second tour through the major leagues. Robles hit five home runs in 2018 — across 192 minor-league at-bats and 59 more with the Nationals — so is there more power where those came from?
“That injury, when I saw it it was really ugly,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said in early September of the hyper-extended left elbow Robles suffered at Class AAA Syracuse in April that sidelined him for the start of this past season. “The fact that he came back and played only tells me that he’s super strong, and he’s going to get stronger, and he’s going to heal. It might take this winter for it to really heal. But I think the power numbers will come.”
If the elbow injury did sap some of Robles’ power, while also delaying his arrival to the Nationals, he used his scattered September opportunities to flash his bat’s potential. Three home runs in 66 plate appearances with the Nationals is encouraging production for a player that could find himself as a lead-off hitter down the line. He also regularly hit the ball hard, further evidenced by his three doubles and one triple, and finished the month with a .288 average that jumped after a slow start.
The Nationals’ outfielders, and the Nationals as a whole, sit at a crossroads given Bryce Harper’s uncertain future. Robles figures into the Nationals’ plans regardless of how the next few months shake out, but Harper’s free agency has a major bearing on how much the organization will need from Robles in 2019. If Harper returns, Robles could start next season as the team’s fourth outfielder and get an extended grace period alongside Harper, rookie of the year candidate Juan Soto and veteran Adam Eaton. If Harper signs elsewhere, it is more likely that Robles is penciled into a starting role and trailed by heightened expectations.
That would not mean Robles will be expected to replace the power Harper provided for the last seven seasons. But it wouldn’t hurt if he could help fill that void.
“I like what I see. He’s full of energy. He can spark our team,” Martinez said before Robles’ four-hit game on Sept. 26. “There’s still a lot for him to learn, obviously. But he’s going to learn. And he wants to learn, and that’s a good thing. I really love what I see. Three home runs in a short period of time, that’s pretty impressive. What I like most is the fact that he’s not afraid to use the other side of the field, which is kind of nice.”
That all bodes well for Robles and the Nationals, and it is promising that he has already shown why Baseball America ranked him as MLB’s sixth-best prospect heading into last season. He has always appeared near the top of those lists, both within the Nationals’ system and beyond it, and that is because he could develop into a five-tool player. That means he would bring the ability to hit with power and contact to the plate, a strong arm and reliable glove in the outfield, and speed to complement those mechanical skills. His speed and arm strength are undeniable, and his contact and glove can only be polished by more experience. He put a lot of work into reading balls off the bat from center field throughout September, and Martinez and the Nationals coaches helped his positioning by giving him an index card he kept in his back pocket during games. His 12 strikeouts to four walks was not preferable, especially if he could hit lead-off in the future, but it is a very small sample size and normal for a player still getting used to major league pitching.
So power is the least-predictable variable of the Victor Robles equation, and maybe what the Nationals could use most in the short-term future. Harper led the Nationals with 34 home runs this past season — while no other player hit more than 24 — and baseball is favoring teams that hit the ball over the fence more than others. Eight of the league’s 10 playoff teams ranked in the top 10 for total home runs in 2018, and all of those clubs finished with 205 or more. The Nationals ranked 13th with 191, an impressive number given how injured they were throughout the season, but now could lose their greatest power source. They would still return Anthony Rendon (24 home runs in 2018), Juan Soto (22 at 19 years old), Trea Turner (a career-high 19 homers), Ryan Zimmerman (13 in just 85 games), and whoever they may sign to fill needs at second base and behind the plate.
And maybe Robles, after a few months of healing and offseason work and winter ball in the Dominican Republic, will be ready to show that he can, in fact, do it all.
“I’m not too worried about it,” Martinez said of Robles only hinting at his power in 2018. “I told him, for me it’s about hitting doubles. Bunt when you think it’s necessary and play good defense, and run the bases the way you are capable of running them. That’s what I want to see from him. Here’s a guy who could potentially hit 50 to 60 doubles and lead the league in extra-based hits. That’s kind of what I see out of him.”
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