Robles flashes talent Nats know is there

Despite some miscues, Nationals excited by young outfielder's promise

April 1st, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The first weekend of ’ career as the Nationals starting center fielder is complete, a tantalizing and frustrating experience to watch the super-talented rookie excel at the plate while adjusting to the rest of the game on the fly. A three-game sample space is not enough to draw any grand conclusions, but one thing seems certain for the Nationals’ top prospect and National League Rookie of the Year candidate -- there will be growing pains. 

Robles’ youth was easy to spot during Opening Weekend. He backpedaled for balls in center field, overthrew cut-off men and ran into a double play between third and home, costing the Nats a run during a tight game on Opening Day. And yet at the plate the transition went smoothly. In his first 11 plate appearances, Robles collected five hits (.455), including three doubles and a home run and scored three runs. He routinely turned over the top of the lineup as the “second leadoff hitter” batting ninth, just as manager Dave Martinez intended.

So despite the uneven start, the Nationals feel encouraged by Robles’ Opening Weekend as an everyday player. Sure, there will be a learning curve and some of his mistakes early on could be difficult to watch. But the team is prepared to ride those ups and downs as Robles develops somewhat on the fly at the Major League level.

“You've got to remember he's 21 years old, and he's playing in the big leagues,” Martinez said. “I’ve been there, I know the struggle. He’s going to get better.”

The game appeared to be moving fast for Robles at times this weekend, but no 21-year-old would even have the opportunity to make those mistakes on such a big stage without offering glimpses of his enormous talent.

Take Saturday afternoon for example. Robles misplayed a Jeff McNeil triple and Pete Alonso double in the first two innings, and then promptly smacked a solo home run to begin the third inning. He even started the fifth inning with a single, which was quickly erased when Robles got picked off leaning too far off first base. One step forward, followed by a step back.

“If anything, it’s me just being too quick out there and trying to make things happen too fast,” Robles said through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “But in reality, I feel confident and good out there. Whether things are going good or bad I try to remain positive and confident on the field. I don’t try to hamper too much on negative stuff. I know I have the tools and I just let my tools come out.”

Initially, the Nationals planned to split Robles' time in center field with , easily their best defensive outfielder and an elite defender. Then, Taylor sprained his left knee and left hip on a diving play near the end of the spring, an injury the team announced would require him to miss "a significant amount of time.”

Taylor grew optimistic when he felt much better the next day and started doing some light baseball activities a few days after the injury, but the team still has not released a clear timetable for his return. With Taylor sidelined, the center field job is Robles' completely, a chance to learn and grow as the season moves along.

“He’s like an aggressive mustang,” third base coach and outfield coordinator Bobby Henley said. “The things he can do out there in the outfield, or on the bases, at the plate are phenomenal. But I think there are a few things that will pop up occasionally when you’re a young player and you play at such a high level. We’re going to continue to let him be a mustang. We talk and go over things daily before and after the game.”

The miscues to start the season have quickly become teachable moments for this coaching staff, and perhaps that is what encourages them most about his start. The weather conditions prior to Sunday’s series finale were windy and rainy, but Henley didn’t even have to wonder whether Robles wanted to get extra work in the outfield before the young center fielder found him to figure out what time they were going to the field. Robles credited veteran right fielder Adam Eaton for his constant guidance, sometimes during games in the outfield.

“I just keep telling him, we want you to be aggressive,” Martinez said. “But aggressively smart.”

And that represents the dilemma for the Nationals, trying to teach Robles without taking away any of the aggressiveness that made him such an exciting prospect to begin with. One weekend has already given them a glimpse of the payoff Robles' immense talent can bring, even if he is not fully polished.

But as Robles grows more comfortable at the Major League level, the Nats are confident those mistakes will become fewer and farther between.

“That’s one thing with Vic man, he wants to be great,” Henley said. “Whenever something pops up, he takes it to heart, as we all do, and learn from it and move on. He sure is fun to watch. He may make mistakes here or there, but I’ll tell you what, he’s on base to make a mistake.

“He’s hitting balls off the wall, homers, you know what I mean. Shoot, I just have a blast going out and watching him play every day because he keeps getting better and better and better.”