There’s a good chance Victor Robles will be patrolling center field for the Nationals in 2019, and if that happens, Robles expects that the powerful stroke that was sapped by an early-season hyperextended left elbow will return.
Manager Davey Martinez has hinted at that and hitting coach Kevin Long expects that offensive surge to occur, too. But hearing Robles talk at Nationals Winterfest about the return of his power stroke makes the possibility of losing Bryce Harper to free agency a little easier to digest.
“I feel a hundred percent now and I feel that power is back, it’s there,” Robles said via interpreter Melissa Strozza on Saturday afternoon.
That’s a positive development for a team that must consider the possibility of losing a slugger like Harper to an astronomical free agent contract. For years, fans have been tantalized by Robles’ appealing blend of speed, power and defense. But just when he appeared ready to take the next step after hitting a career-high 10 homers between Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in 2017, and impressing in spring training, Robles sustained a nasty injury to his elbow trying to make a diving catch in an April game for Triple-A Syracuse.
Robles, 21, worked hard during the summer to rehabilitate the injury - which could have been season-ending for a player with less drive and determination - and worked his way back to the major leagues in September.
That’s when the heralded prospect did something he hadn’t done during a 13-game trial in September 2017: He hit his first three big league homers, totaling three in 21 games while putting together a .288/.348/.525 slash line. By contract, in 52 games for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, short-season Single-A Auburn and Syracuse last season, Robles went deep just twice.
Long was impressed with what he saw in September.
“I kind of let Victor be Victor for a minute or two,” Long said. “The coach in me kind of takes over and what I saw was a couple adjustments he needed to make. He made them on the fly and he was able to take them into the game, and I was like ‘Whoa!’ That’s special and that excites me.”
To hear Robles tell it, the path back to the majors after a serious injury helped set the stage for his September breakout.
“I feel ready for what’s to come,” he said. “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.”
Robles has spent part of the offseason playing for Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican winter league. In 98 at-bats through 25 games, he’s slashed .265/.345/.316 with a homer and six RBIs.
Don’t let the lack of impressive stats fool you, as Robles insists winter ball is purely another learning experience - as well as a way to get some of the at-bats the injury robbed him of.
“It’s a league I would really compare to ours here, just because you have pitchers from all over,” he said. “You’ve got some big league pitchers, some pitchers from the Mexican League. So it’s pretty tough. I think the experience I got there was really good. I worked hard and I liked it.”
If Harper bolts for big bucks in free agency, Robles could be the Nationals’ starting center fielder next season. If Harper re-signs, his path to playing time becomes a little less clear, with the Nats needing to find at-bats for Michael A. Taylor and Adam Eaton, along with incumbent left fielder Juan Soto.
But Robles is focused solely on preparing for 2019, regardless of where or how much he plays. He’s aware of the rumors circulating that have mentioned his name in possible trades for a frontline catcher or starting pitcher. Aware but uninterested in them.
“My mentality always with rumors is you can’t listen to them,” he said. “We always know they’re there, but we’re aware this is a business, and as much as we want to stick in one organization, we have to be open to the possibility we’re going to be with any of the 30 teams. I really just ignore it, but it feels good.”
Long is eager to continue working with Robles.
“I’m excited to get more time with him, to spend more time with him, and to tap into his overall potential,” the hitting coach said
Though Harper’s departure would open a clearer route to more playing time, Robles isn’t eager to see him depart. Robles says Harper has been a perfect teammate and an eager teacher for a young outfielder who wants to learn.
“He’s just a great teammate who’s just been such a great help overall,” Robles said of Harper. “On the field, he’d pull me aside and we’d go over plays - maybe not even a play one of us were involved in - and he’d point out something someone else did and just teach me from that moment. He taught me a lot of patience at the plate as well. Off the field, he’s a really great example of how to be with the fans. So I took that away from him.”
One of Harper’s lessons to the young outfielder: always strive to improve.
“This is a game where you’re really learning stuff daily,” Robles said. “You’re always going to be learning, every single day you take something away. For me, in general, I’m always going to work on everything. I feel really confident in my skills, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to push for a little bit extra, a little bit more.”