Victor Robles was the last player to exit the batting cage, a brief reprieve from the relentless sun, and walk over to a couple fans behind a fence at Pfitzner Stadium last Friday afternoon. He signed a few autographs and conversed with the people in the English he’s learned from Rosetta Stone and around baseball the past two summers.
They asked him if he was going to play that night — Pokemon Night at the ballpark — against the Winston-Salem Dash. The center fielder shook his head. He took some swings in the cage, and his left hand, hit by a pitch four days earlier, was still too painful.
“I want to play,” Robles said in Spanish a few minutes later. “I’m eager to play.”
Robles is the marquee everyday player for the Class A Potomac Nationals, the next supreme talent rocketing through the Washington Nationals’ farm system, and by all accounts, he is always eager to play. When he’s not eating all the animal crackers during a rain delay, he blends a skill set franchises covet with unusual intensity and fearlessness. The combination produces both excitement and angst.
“He’s a very high-energy kid, very hyper,” Vice President of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia said. “He loves to play, to the point where I had to tone him down a little bit because he was so high-energy.”
Three years after signing for $225,000 — a bargain price in today’s bloated international market — the spirited Robles ranks 13th on Baseball America’s midseason prospect list. At 19 years old, he would’ve just completed his freshman year in college if he were American — or been a top pick in the draft out of high school last year. But he is Dominican, a jewel the Nationals unearthed from the backwoods that has drawn comparisons to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ duo of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte as the organization continues its resurrection in Latin America after the Smiley Gonzalez scandal.
“If you’re going off tools alone, he’s one of the top 10 prospects in baseball,” said DiPuglia, who first met Robles while working for the Boston Red Sox when Robles was 11 years old.
The 6-foot Robles, who has added 20 pounds since signing, began this season with Class A Hagerstown and earned a promotion in late June by hitting .305 with an .864 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 64 games. His numbers have slipped in 19 games at high-A — he’s hitting .236 with a .702 OPS — but he’s one of the youngest players in the Carolina League, and Potomac Manager Tripp Keister said Robles has already shown him “he can win a game in so many ways.”
“You don’t ever root for someone to fail, but they need to go through that because it’s not going to be easy when you get to the major leagues,” Keister said. “You’re going to have adversity.”
Earlier this month, Keister recalled, Robles sprinted from one gap to another to make a game-saving catch on a flyball the entire Potomac dugout expected to fall. In that same series against Carolina, he executed a delayed steal. The next day, Carolina’s pitching coach told Keister that was the best delayed steal he had ever seen.
“He does some things like that where it’s just pretty special,” Keister said. “It’s certainly not our coaching. He does some God-given things.”
There are instances when Robles’s confident, reckless style is a detriment. He has the green light to steal whenever he pleases, and he said he recently tried to swipe third base late in a game down by one. He was thrown out easily. On another play, he laid a precise bunt down the third base line for a hit, but was caught in rundown and tagged out trying to sneak his way to second base.
“They’re coachable moments you can learn from,” Keister said. “Fans might not like it and think it’s awful, but that’s how we teach them so they don’t make those mistakes when they go to D.C. That’s why we’re here.”
In the batter’s box, Robles crowds the plate, unafraid of beanings. But the proximity is taking its toll. Last year, he was hit by 21 pitches in 61 games. This season, he’s totaled 29 in 83 games, and he’s missed six games since a fastball struck his hand in the first inning last Monday. DiPuglia said the beanballs are the “only issue” with Robles, but standing so close to the plate also allows him to track balls “as good as any 19-year-old anywhere in the world.”
“I’m a player that doesn’t fear pain,” Robles said. “If there’s something that needs to be done, no matter how risky or dangerous, I do it without worrying about the consequences.”
Growing up, Robles, whose father is a truck driver and mother is a nanny, wanted to emulate David Ortiz in the way he handles himself off the field. Between the lines, Robles said he aspires to perform like Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.
He doesn’t plan on changing the way he plays to get there. Perhaps he gets it from his mother, who, DiPuglia recalled, celebrated on the field after Robles won a game for the Nationals’ Dominican League team.
“All the kids ran onto the field, and I see a blonde lady jumping up and down,” DiPuglia said. “She’s a high-energy person, too.”
Said Robles: “That’s just the way I am.”