WEST PALM BEACH, Fla -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez has said throughout the spring that he sees playing time in center field as an open competition between Michael A. Taylor and Victor Robles, who is ranked as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline.
But there should be plenty of opportunities as Martinez plans to juggle playing time across the outfield for both players, as well as Adam Eaton and Juan Soto.
“We’ve got four really good outfielders,” Martinez said prior to Tuesday night’s Grapefruit League game against the Astros. “I think they’re all going to play. Victor’s going to play because he’s young and we’ve actually got to see what he can do. But Michael’s just as important as anyone, and I want to get him playing time.”
Robles, who started in center field on Tuesday, entered camp with a perceived edge in this competition. He has been the team’s top prospect the previous three seasons and he has been impressive in his small sample size in the Majors -- .843 OPS in 93 plate appearances -- as a September callup. However, Taylor is the team’s best defensive outfielder and improving on defense has been one of the Nationals' focal points this spring. And Martinez has been encouraged by what he has seen at the plate after Taylor’s work to reinvent his swing at the end of last season and this offseason.
So, Martinez will attempt to find as much playing time as possible for both players.
It will almost certainly not come at the expense of Soto, who will continue to be the everyday left fielder following his phenomenal rookie season. Eaton is finally healthy after battling injuries to his legs the previous two seasons, but Martinez is going to be careful to monitor him as much as possible. When Eaton is out of the lineup, Robles will shift to right field and Taylor will play center.
“I’ve said this before, I think Michael is one of the best center fielders in the game,” Martinez said. “So I wouldn’t want to move him.”
During his tenure as a bench coach with the Cubs under Joe Maddon, Martinez got a first-hand look at the balancing act required to find playing time between several talented position players. And even with the departure of Bryce Harper to the National League East-rival Phillies, the Nats should have one of the most talented outfields in the NL.
“Hopefully they all get off to a good start and they all play well,” Martinez said. “That’ll make my job harder if a guy’s really hot. But I want them all to play. In this day and age, we always talk about how rest is so important for an everyday player. If you’re playing 135-140 games, that’s to me considered a full season. 'Cause you’re going to come into the game. Usually everybody comes in the game. Everybody’s going to get a chance to play.”
Kieboom times two
Tuesday night offered a glimpse of why the Nationals are so excited about Carter Kieboom, their No. 2 prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 25 overall, and why Kieboom still has some learning to do before he is ready to play second base full-time in the big leagues.
Kieboom homered in his first two at-bats against Astros ace Justin Verlander in the Nats' 5-3 win, crushing a two-run homer in the second inning and jumping on a first-pitch fastball for a solo homer in the fourth. While Verlander acknowledged after the game that he did not read much into scouting reports on Kieboom, the 21-year-old Nats prospect admitted he was very aware of the likely future Hall of Famer he matched up against.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know who was on the mound.” Kieboom said. “Yeah, I know exactly who he is. I have never faced him before. I’d seen him on TV. That’s about it. But when I get in the batter’s box, yeah, he’s a pitcher. I look at what he throws and what his tendencies are, and what pitches are working for him that night, like I would any other pitcher.”
Strasburg confident after latest start
Stephen Strasburg focused on delivering first-pitch offspeed stuff during his 4 2/3 innings against the Astros. He leaned on his two-seamer to start most often, and he was happy with the results of his start overall. Despite the four walks and five hits, he struck out six and yielded two runs.
“I think my offspeed pitches are the stuff they don’t really want to get to,” Strasburg said. “I think that’s why they’re swinging early in the count, above league average off me. I just have to do a better job speeding them up sometimes and slowing them down other times.”
Strasburg has been pleased with his mechanics and the way his arm has felt this spring. On Tuesday, his velocity hovered around 92-94 mph and topped out at 95.
Ross in relief, again
While the rest of the Nationals’ starting pitchers are starting to throw deeper into games to build stamina, Joe Ross tossed a scoreless inning of relief in the sixth inning on Tuesday, his sixth appearance of the spring, none of which have lasted longer than two innings.
Ross did toss 20 more pitches in the bullpen after the outing, according to Martinez, who says they still view Ross as a starter and will eventually begin to ramp him back up, another indication he seems destined to begin the season at Triple-A Fresno.
Left-hander Patrick Corbin will make his fourth Grapefruit League start when the Nationals take on the Braves at 1:05 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. In nine innings this spring, Corbin has given up three earned runs with three strikeouts and no walks.