The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Hassell III knows how Nats fans feel. He still wants a chance.

Robert Hassell III arrived in the Nationals' organization as part of the Juan Soto trade. (Rob Leiter/MLB Photos/Getty Images)

ABERDEEN, Md. — Before they played their first of two games Friday, the Wilmington Blue Rocks grabbed their gloves and filled the outfield for batting practice on a humid afternoon.

Scattered around the turf were groups of players, their red, brown and black gloves hanging by their sides as they chatted among themselves. But standing alone in center field was Robert Hassell III, looking straight ahead with a custom gray-and-green glove.

If you looked close enough, under the webbing, there was another detail.

“Well, yeah, I had the Padres logo on it,” Hassell said Saturday with a slight grin. “I had gotten that customized a long time ago. So I know another glove was shipped out yesterday — waiting on that.”

Hassell hasn’t had much time to get new gear since Aug. 2, when he was one of six players acquired by the Washington Nationals in the blockbuster trade that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego.

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By the next day, Hassell was the No. 1 prospect in Washington’s farm system. The day after that, he was batting third for high Class A Wilmington.

But in the bigger picture, he was traded as part of a package for Soto, a 23-year-old whose hitting and plate discipline have been compared with that of the all-time greats, and Bell, Washington’s standout first baseman. Soto was part of the 2019 World Series team and became the face of the franchise, a cornerstone for the Nationals to build around. That all changed at the trade deadline, and now in Washington, Hassell’s name is front and center.

He will be the answer to trivia questions at sports bars in the D.C. area for years to come. It’s part of his Wikipedia page. He’ll also have to deal with the high expectations of fans who hope the trade was worth it — and of the ones who might never be satisfied.

“I can understand it,” Hassell said. “Soto’s the player you want right now. … He’s a really exciting player. But, for me, I would say to fans, ‘Just come out and watch some games.’ I trust my ability to perform consistently, so I trust my game. Wherever they put me, they put me and move me up along the way. However that goes, I let it be up to [the front office]. But I think I can be a really exciting player, and that’s what I got.”

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Hassell was a top prospect from Franklin, Tenn., who originally committed to play at Vanderbilt, a perennial college powerhouse. He then was selected with the eighth pick by the Padres in the 2020 draft. He called himself a contact-first hitter who can spray the ball to all fields and use his speed to take extra bases. In two seasons in the minors, he has a .296 batting average and 56 stolen bases, and he believes there is power in his game.

“I’ve had 10-plus home runs both years I’ve been a Padre,” Hassell said before he stopped and smiled. “A Padre and National now.”

He continued: “I can be that guy. I got the power, and what I’ve learned about myself is I got the [opposite field] juice, too. But I focus on putting the bat on the ball; when you put the bat on the ball, good things are going to happen.”

Hassell is a fan as well as a player, so like everyone else he found himself scrolling through Twitter and keeping up with rumors in the days leading up to the trade deadline, even as his name floated through the discussion.

Hassell said he didn’t find out he had been traded until about 30 minutes before the news hit Twitter. Padres General Manager A.J. Preller called him first, and his agent phoned not long after.

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The Nationals offered to fly Hassell to Maryland for their affiliate’s road series, but it would have taken him nearly two weeks to retrieve his car. So he packed his bags in Fort Wayne, Ind., and drove for 8½ hours, spending the time listening to music and talking to family and friends.

He was happy to be traded — not because he was leaving the Padres but because the trade represented a new opportunity. But his dad reminded him that with new opportunities come new responsibilities and added pressure.

When Hassell was talking to a reporter Saturday, an usher at Ripken Stadium walked up behind him and pretended to wipe off a bleacher chair. Then, he turned and mouthed, “Is that Hassell?”

Eventually, the usher introduced himself: “I’m a big fan. I’ve been watching your game for a while, man.”

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The usher wasn’t the only one who knew him that weekend. So did a fan in Section 204 on Sunday: “Did you see that Hassell guy? He’s the guy who’s expected to be the next Soto. He’s big time. He’s big time.”

Hassell may never become the next Soto. No one’s really expecting that. Still, the Nationals hope he can become a part of their next contending team. The focus is on the future and on Hassell — every swing, every stolen base and every flyball caught with that new glove.

“I’ve grown up to believe that, anywhere I play, as long as there’s a diamond and the field doesn’t look all goofy and messed up, it’s the same game regardless of what team you’re on,” Hassell said. “Pressure is inevitable. If you’re in a position that you want to be in, there’s going to be pressure with it. So just take that with a grain of salt and keep playing your game.”