- - Thursday, February 23, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —Victor Robles, the Washington Nationals’ young center field prospect from the Dominican Republic, needed an interpreter to answer questions from reporters Thursday at spring training after the 19-year-old faced major-league pitching for the first time.

But he didn’t need an interpreter for this question I asked him:

“What if they called you in the middle of the season and said, ‘We need you to come now to play in Washington.’ Do you think you could play now?’”

Before I got through the second part of the question, Robles smiled. He knew what I was talking about.

“I’m always ready,” he answered through the club’s interpreter, Octavio Martinez.

Which was an interesting answer, because the 19-year-old Robles had already cited David Ortiz, the Dominican designated hitter who retired last season after a heralded career with the Boston Red Sox. When asked why Ortiz — a DH, after all — Robles said, “He is very humble.”

Call Victor Robles confidently humble, then.

He has good reason to be.

Robles is the Nationals’ lone crown jewel in a farm system that took a hit this winter. The trade of two of their top pitching prospects, former number one pick Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton came after both had fallen out of favor.

The Nationals were willing to trade Giolito and Lopez. But the first two names on the list of objects of desire from other clubs, including the White Sox in the Chris Sale trade talks, were Trea Turner and Victor Robles.

Washington wasn’t willing to part with either.

Robles, who had an infield hit off Tanner Roark in Thursday’s intrasquad game but was picked off second base, said he heard the trade rumors about him this winter. He was pleased with his protected status within the organization.

“I’m very proud of that,” he said. “First, that they signed me and second that they really want to keep me here. That goes a long way. I was very excited about that.”

He’s earned that protected status.

MLB.com named him the second-best outfield prospect in all of the minor leagues. The 6-foot, 185-pound Robles, signed by Washington as an international free agent at the age of 16, rose through three levels of the farm system last year, finishing the season with the Class A Potomac Nationals. In 504 at bats through all three levels, Robles had nine home runs, 42 RBI, 75 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. He was also a top defender.

MLBpipeline.com senior writer Jim Callis said Robles “might have as good all-around tools as anybody in the minor leagues.”

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is a fan, of course, but he outlined what could get in the way – what generally gets in the way – of those young top prospects who wind up as a forgotten throw-ins in trades several years later:

“Number one, putting too high expectations on a young player, and that dangerous word potential. I’ve seen a bunch of them with potential that …those shoes get kind of big,” Baker said. “The second thing is that you hope their baseball IQ and intellect (grows); they learn from their mistakes.

“The third thing probably is, for a hitter – a slider. I remember when I first went to Double A and said, ‘Man, what is that pitch.’ It was like an anti-bat ball. I would swing at it and it would move. I never seen anything like that at such a young age. Most times you see curveballs and everything else. The ability to combat that slider. I’ve seen a lot of guys never learn how to hit it and then they get so slider conscious it gets in the way of their real strength which is hitting that fastball.

“One of the major pitfalls is being away from home at a young age. I think people forget, you have different foods, different cultures, different language, these are barriers that most American kids don’t have to go through. But this organization is really good at providing (support). There are different value systems, different cultures, that is one of the major [things]. But that is one of the differences between high school kids, which he is at that age, and college kids. College kids have had a chance to be away from home and be on their own.

“There are a lot temptations for a young kid away from home for the first time with more money than he’s probably ever had.”

Robles will likely start the season back at Potomac. He is projected to be ready for major league competition in 2018. There will likely be no midseason phone call for him to come play in Washington.

Then again, he was invited by club officials to major league camp this spring so everyone could get a first-hand daily look at him.

“As a young player, you can change the way an organization’s mind positively or negatively about how they feel about you in a very short period of time,” Baker said.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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