García, Robles get muted vote of confidence from Rizzo

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – With less than two weeks remaining in spring training, the two members of the Nationals’ projected lineup most in danger of losing their jobs got a muted vote of confidence from general manager Mike Rizzo, who nonetheless made it clear he needs to see more improvement from Luis García Jr. and Victor Robles.

García and Robles came to camp with an edict from club officials to show long-sought improvement, told they would be pushed by others in search of their starting jobs over the course of the spring. Each has enjoyed some success at the plate – García is 8-for-29 with two doubles and a homer, Robles is 6-for-18 with a homer and three walks – but each has come under some criticism following fundamental mistakes.

Asked about both García, 23, and Robles, 26, this afternoon, Rizzo expressed disappointment in those mistakes while also acknowledging their relative inexperience.

“I think they’re playing hard, they’re playing well,” Rizzo said. “We have to eliminate the mental lapses and the mental mistakes. But when you think about it, they’re both still young men chronologically. Although they seem like they’ve been here forever, they’re still young people. Luis is still 23 years old. If they didn’t have ability, obviously you wouldn’t be putting up with the mental mistakes that they make. But they have a lot of ability. They’ve shown it in the past at this level. We just have to get them over that, because that’s not helping the team.”

García in particular came under fire last week after committing errors on back-to-back plays, then getting picked off first base the following day.

“That can’t happen,” manager Davey Martinez said after Saturday’s game. “We talked about that with him. We’ve got to be beyond that now with him. I mean, like I said, he’s not a rookie. He’s been in this league now for a while. Those things cannot happen.”

Robles, who missed most of last season with a back injury, faces more stiff competition in center field this spring. Though the Nationals likely want to wait to debut top prospects James Wood, Dylan Crews and Robert Hassell III, they also could give the starting job to rookie Jacob Young, who was part of the daily lineup last September.

The Plan B options at second base would be veteran utilityman Ildemaro Vargas, Rule 5 Draft pick Nasim Nuñez or prospect Trey Lipscomb, who has received rave reviews by Rizzo and Martinez this spring but is expected to start the year in the minors.

Lipscomb, who is actually only 29 days younger than García but was drafted only two years ago, is 9-for-25 with a double in his first big league camp. A minor league Gold Glove Award winner last season as a third baseman, he has seen time around the infield this spring and tonight is starting at second base alongside regulars CJ Abrams, Nick Senzel and Joey Meneses.

“I think you shortchange him by putting a utility tag on him right away,” Rizzo said. “Fortunately for us, and maybe unfortunately for him, he can play a lot of different positions very, very well. This guy was a Gold Glove third baseman last year that’s proven he can hit at the high levels in the minor leagues and he’s shown really well here in spring training. So I’m not going to limit his ceiling by putting a moniker on him that he’s a utility player. This guy’s a good player. If he could help us at a single position, impact us the most, that’s great. If he can impact us greater by being able to bounce around the field, I think that’s great also. But he’s a player. And a player’s got to play, and they’ve got to play a lot.”

* Three weeks removed from the mandatory reporting date for all players on the 40-man roster, Stephen Strasburg remains at home outside Washington, unable to pitch. Rizzo said at the start of camp he expected the 2019 World Series MVP to come to West Palm Beach and serve as a mentor to younger pitchers, with no expectation he would attempt to revive his pitching career.

Strasburg has been embroiled in negotiations with Nationals ownership over the $105 million he’s still owed over the final three years of the $245 million extension he signed in December 2019 and has not been with the team in more than a year.

Asked about the status of that situation today, Rizzo suggested the team is not attempting to penalize Strasburg for not reporting to camp but rather continues to try to work out a settlement that satisfies both sides.

“We’re discussing things with Strasburg’s camp,” the GM said, “and we hope we get something settled with that so we can embrace the man like he’s supposed to be embraced.”

* The Nationals optioned reliever Zach Brzykcy to Triple-A Rochester this evening. The right-hander, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, will continue his rehab in minor league camp.

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