WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Victor Robles’s potential seems near limitless ahead of what should be his first full major league season, and so do the ways Nationals Manager Dave Martinez can use the sparkplug center fielder in Washington’s lineup.
Martinez could put Robles at the top of the order — first or second — but he already has a handful of players with years of experience in those spots. He could hit him somewhere in the middle — sixth or seventh — and see whether his power potential translates to the scoreboard.
Or he could get creative.
“We might have him hit ninth and have that second leadoff hitter, and let the pitcher hit eighth,” Martinez said Monday as position players reported for spring training. “We’ll toy around with different things this spring and see where we get the most value out of him.”
Martinez has put it on the record that he wants to find a consistent lineup. The Nationals rolled out 125 batting orders in 2018 — not counting the pitcher’s spot — and the most consistent was used just 10 times. They had a position player bat ninth 29 times, not counting interleague games with a designated hitter, but went away from that strategy as they got healthy at the end of the season.
The idea behind batting a position player ninth is that it gives teams a better hitter to roll over the lineup. Last season, Wilmer Difo most often found himself in that spot, with a bulk of those times coming when he filled in for an injured Anthony Rendon at third base. That was at the start of May, and Difo hit ninth in seven straight games while Martinez looked to spark a lineup missing one of its key pieces. The Nationals went 6-1 in that stretch and had games with 12, nine, eight and seven runs. That’s not to say that the unconventional approach directly led to offensive and team success, but it shows that experimentation did not slow down Washington.
Difo again will be coming off the bench this season after the Nationals signed veteran Brian Dozier to play second base. The other position players who hit ninth at points in 2018 — Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Stevenson — were reserves last season and could be again, although Stevenson probably will start the year in the minors. That means Martinez has only hit a position player ninth when his lineup was not at full strength. But because Robles has a good chance to be the everyday center fielder, that trend would need to shift.
Here’s a stab at projecting the Nationals’ lineup with the 21-year-old Robles hitting ninth:
1. Adam Eaton, right field
2. Trea Turner, shortstop
3. Juan Soto, left field
4. Anthony Rendon, third base
5. Ryan Zimmerman, first base
6. Brian Dozier, second base
7. Yan Gomes or Kurt Suzuki, catcher
9. Victor Robles, center field
These players, however configured, make up a pretty balanced lineup. But the Nationals do have four players with experience hitting leadoff: Eaton, Turner, Dozier and Robles. Eaton was the Nationals’ leadoff hitter when healthy last year, and it’s likely he slots there again to start the season. Turner’s speed makes him a natural fit at the top of the order. And while Dozier mostly hit first across 5½ seasons with the Minnesota Twins, he experienced a lot of movement while making a World Series run with the Los Angeles Dodgers last fall. He averaged 28 home runs across the past six seasons, and that power could play well behind Soto, Rendon and Zimmerman. As with Robles, Martinez can deploy Dozier in a lot of different ways.
“I think Adam Eaton, right now he’s probably that guy, but I like Trea in that spot, too,” Martinez said of Eaton, Turner, Dozier and Robles having experience atop the order. “But I try to explain to these guys that, after the first inning, you become a hitter. You’re going to get up there and you’re going to just hit and you’re going to get different opportunities. You might be the fourth hitter, so you then become a cleanup hitter that inning.”
Robles has logged the least time in any spot because he has logged the least time in the majors. He has roughly 60 days of big league experience, playing in the past two Septembers, and he missed most of last year after he hyperextended his left elbow while playing for Class AAA Syracuse in April. When he has been on the field, he has flashed the ability to be a five-tool player if his power and contact catch up with his glove, arm and, most of all, blazing speed. He had mixed results in September that included bursts of excitement as he finished with three home runs and a .288 batting average in 66 plate appearances.
Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo have stated that the Nationals are holding a competition to start in center field. Robles and Taylor are the participants. It is likely that even if Robles wins out Taylor is used regularly so Washington avoids giving Robles a full-time starter’s workload right away. But Martinez is already scheming how to best use Robles’s versatility in a crowded lineup, and he keeps saying the rookie will play a lot.
That could go in a lot of directions. One of them is to use Robles for a strategy that, at least on the surface, worked for the Nationals to an extent a year ago.
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