When Victor Robles comes sprinting in from his center field spot in Rochester’s Frontier Field, home to the Triple-A Red Wings, how much can change?
How can a pop-up to center by 31-year-old Nick Buss in the fourth game of a minor league season make a teenager a star and temporarily stunt a top prospect?
How can an extended left arm, a catch and tumble shift timelines?
Robles, Juan Soto, the Nationals and the major leagues found out last season.
Robles hyperextended his left elbow when catching Buss’ shallow fly ball. He stayed on a knee, reached his right hand to grab his left forearm, and bowed his head with his upside down hat lingering a few feet away on the grass as if part of a crime scene.
X-Rays were negative and surgery was not necessary. However, extended effects from Robles’ dive on April 9 were felt throughout the season. He didn’t play again until July 7, missing almost three months. Meanwhile, Soto rocketed to the major leagues, supplanting Robles as the team’s top prospect. Robles again made it to the majors by the end of year, but the season, which was expected to deliver his breakthrough, became stalled by the injury.
“When I saw him in spring training last year I thought maybe he needed a little bit more time,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “And he got hurt obviously, but when he came back and I saw him play in September, I really feel like he's ready to play. He really is. He just needs repetition to get out and play. I don't want him to do anything different.”
He’s healthy now, ready to enter center field as the Nationals presumptive starter in 2019, whether Bryce Harper returns or not. Robles joining Soto in the outfield last season in the major leagues, while temporary, was unexpected because no one thought Soto would be there. Yet, Robles’ late arrival was necessary to make that reality.
“I feel ready for what’s to come,” Robles said recently through interpreter Melissa Strozza. “Just a little extra time I’ve had to get a little more experience. I feel like I’ve seen so many plays on the field that it’s given me that experience. Also, just having the experience to get in the games and slow things down. I’m ready for what’s to come in the years ahead.”
He spent the winter in his native Dominican Republic, where Robles is happy to enjoy the warmth as opposed the modest mid-Atlantic winters in Washington. He also played Winter Ball for Aguilas Cibaenas: 25 games, 110 plate appearances a .662 OPS.
Most important is the state of his left arm. Concerns the injury sapped some of Robles’ power persisted until the end of the season, though his five home runs in 247 combined plate appearances between Syracuse and Washington last season were in line with prior results.
“I feel a hundred percent now and I feel that power is back, it’s there,” Robles said. “Just that it feels really good now.”
Robles’ small big-league sample size carries positive indicators. His Z-swing percentage -- the percentage of time he swings at strikes -- is 62.4. Soto was 60.3 last season. It’s a solid number for both, particularly at their ages. And, Robles’ contact percentage (86.8) is also in a good place, as is his K percentage (18.2). For comparison, Soto’s K percentage was 20.0, Harper 24.3, last season.
“I kind of let Victor be Victor for a minute or two,” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “What I saw was a couple adjustments I needed to make. And he made them on the fly and was able to take it into the game. That was special.”
Spring training is five weeks away. Robles will enter his second stint on the big league side of things in Florida, but for the first time have a clear path to the Opening Day roster. March 28 at Nationals Park, Robles and Soto are expected to take two of the outfield spots alongside red, white and blue bunting and a season’s new hope. The dive in Rochester will be almost a year behind Robles, an event he expects to become a forgettable tug on his timeline.
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