WILMINGTON, Del. – Robert Hassell III, like many of us, was surprised when he heard his name mentioned in a potential trade package for Juan Soto just 11 days ago.
He was sitting in his apartment in Fort Wayne, Ind. when he received the call from Padres general manager A.J. Preller, who told him that he was included with four fellow prospects and Luke Voit in a deal for Soto and Josh Bell.
The trade was made official later that day and Hassell packed his bags to head to the Nationals’ affiliate at high Single-A Wilmington.
The No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft made his debut with the Blue Rocks two days later, batting third and playing center field. He went 0-for-5, starting an 0-for-16 stretch to begin his career with the Nationals.
But that didn’t weigh heavy on his mind. He was still processing the trade and trying to get acclimated to his new team.
“Obviously, one of the first things you think about is meeting all new guys and stuff and coaches and developing new relationships,” Hassell said in front of the Blue Rocks dugout at Daniel S. Frawley Stadium. “But like I said, they've been really welcoming to me. And they brought me in and I'm one of them, you know what I mean? So it's good to finally be over here. I know there were talks of me possibly being over here for a minute. Now that it's happened, I'm excited. I'm ready to get to work. I've already played five, six games, but I'm ready to get to work with the Nationals.”
Two things were very clear when talking to Hassell: He’s poised and confident.
Now that’s not to say he doesn’t feel the pressure that comes with being one of the players that was traded for Juan Soto. There is immense pressure being a part of that group.
Hassell feels it, and recognizes the four other prospects probably feel it, too.
“I feel like there is,” he said of the pressure. “And I feel like there is on any of the dudes that did come over just because of how exciting of a player Juan Soto is and how that player (is that) the Nationals and the Nationals fans are losing. And so the guys that are going to have to replace him, there are high expectations, I get that. So, yeah.
“But I feel like the position that I want to be in is going to come with pressure. And I feel like any baseball player, – and any of these guys, getting to know these guys, I feel like any of these guys could say the same thing – you do all this practicing for moments like that. For moments that you have pressure on you. Like I've said before, pressure is inevitable and you just got to push through.”
Pushing through is exactly what Hassell is doing now at Wilmington. Not just through the pressure on him, but also through a mini slump that has plagued him since he joined the Nationals organization.
“Well, I was making an adjustment trying to mess around, which probably isn't a great term to use, but that could be why I've been struggling the past 20 or 30 ABs,” Hassell said. “But I was messing around kind of with hand placement and I was wanting to be more efficient to the zone. And that was before I had come over here. So my last like five or six ABs over on that side before I'd gotten traded were kind of iffy as well.
“I think it was just a coincidence. I feel good here, man. I'm seeing the ball. I'm starting to see the ball better these past couple of days. I'm going with what I know and sticking with it. And so I don't think, to answer your question, no, I don't think so. It's not from the trade or anything. Maybe just getting acclimated a little bit.”
Obviously, Hassell knows better than anybody, but he was right about seeing the ball better. He finally broke the aforementioned hitless streak with an eighth-inning single in his fifth game with the Blue Rocks. That started a new streak in which he has recorded a hit in four straight games, a 6-for-14 (.429) stretch coming into the weekend that included four runs scored, a double, two RBIs and two walks.
Will that translate to the major leagues? It’s probably too early to tell, even though the confident Hassell would like to believe that it would right now. On the other hand, the poised and realistic Hassell acknowledges that he still needs time to develop into the player the Nats believe he can be.
“Just speaking for myself and being confident, man, I'd like to think I'm ready now,” Hassell said of his timeline to the big leagues. “But the reality is, I'm ready when I'm ready. And I'll probably know when I'm ready, and they're gonna know when I'm ready. So I leave it up to them. Like I said, that's just a confidence thing speaking out of me. But while I'm here and while I'm in the minor leagues, I'm gonna get every ounce out of it that I can to help myself for that big league level. So to answer your question, I really don't know, man. Whenever they tell me.”
A good mindset for a young player, who also has the presence of mind to stay in the moment.
“Sometimes I think ahead and I like to be where my feet are,” said Hassell, repeating a phrase often used by manager Davey Martinez. “And my dad always reminds me of that. So sometimes I do think ahead and I feel like that's fine. ... I gotta be right here. The past couple of days, I felt more in my shoes, where I am. And so hoping to go off of that.”
The past couple of days showed the type of production that will be expected of him and the other prospects – MacKenzie Gore, C.J. Abrams, James Wood and Jarlin Susana – as they continue their Nationals careers. And Hassell believes they can achieve that.
“Well, James is relatively new. He was the 2021 draft,” Hassell said. “But I know him (well), too, over spring training and stuff. But man, they're all good dudes. They're solid dudes first. And then obviously what they do on the field is exciting. A guy like James Wood, being the measurables that he has with the power that he has and the speed, it's definitely exciting I would say for Nationals fans. And C.J. and MacKenzie, we already know what they can do at the big league level. So it's an exciting trade and I think Nationals fans should be happy. I do.”
Nationals fans are hoping these five can be the core of the franchise’s next winning team. Something that Hassell, while still staying where his feet are, admits he’s already tempted to think about as well.
“Yeah. That's the goal, man,” he said. “That's always the goal. I'm sure they think the same way. And just ready to get to work. I'm just ready to get to work.”