- - Thursday, February 21, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Everyone has been waiting for Victor Robles.

The Washington Nationals have been waiting since they signed the Dominican youngster as a 16-year-old free agent in 2013 and watched him hit .313 with three home runs, 25 RBI and 26 stolen bases in 47 Dominican Summer League games the following year.

Nationals fans have been waiting since they got a glimpse of the talented outfielder at the end of the 2017 season, at the age of 20.

And all of Major League Baseball has been waiting since he was named one of the top prospects in all of baseball by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline and became the target of trade talks with nearly every team in the game.

“Anytime we had talks with anyone, his name came up,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.

We’ve all had glimpses here and there, but it appears everyone will finally get a long look this season, with Robles penciled in as the Nationals’ starting center fielder.

It could be well worth the wait.

“I think most people know what I can do,” Robles said. “So I just need to keep working hard and doing the things I know how to do.”

Well, most people think they know what he can do. And if he meets those expectations (his minor league baseball profile includes this line: “Robles showcases all five tools along with elite athleticism on a daily basis”), he and fellow Dominican Juan Soto could be two-thirds of an outstanding outfield in Washington for years to come.

“You’re going to see a lot of them playing together this year,” manager Dave Martinez said. “And it’s going to be fun. They get along really well. They understand each other. And I know they’re going to push each other to be good.”

Robles had been the more heralded prospect, and, if he had been healthy last year, likely would have gotten the call to the major league club when the Nationals ran out of able-bodied outfielders.

But Robles suffered a hyperextended elbow diving to make a catch while at Class AAA Syracuse on April 9 and he did not return until a rehab assignment with the Gulf Coast League Nationals on July 7.

In 52 minor league games last season, Robles batted .276 with 32 runs scored, two home runs, 14 RBI and 19 stolen bases. He was called up in September and, in 21 games with the Nationals, he scored 17 runs and batted .288 with three home runs, 10 RBI and three stolen bases.

Meanwhile, Soto got the call on May 20 to come to Washington and never looked back, turning in a historic season for a 19-year-old and finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Now the Dominican duo will be together on the major league club, and Robles would be doing well — very well indeed — if he’s able to match his friend’s first full season in Washington.

“It was very impressive, without a doubt,” Robles said. “I think anyone would like to have a season like that. All I can do is be supportive and admire the great season he had. Hopefully something will come about in that same regards for me this season.”

Their lockers are next to one another here in West Palm Beach, and the two have added some life to a quiet Nationals clubhouse.

“You know what’s funny, when Victor came up at the end, there was a connection already there between him and Juan,” Martinez said. “They palled around together, they hung out together. They started their own little handshake right away.”

Robles in particular is simply a lot of fun, joking around in the clubhouse and keeping everyone loose. If he is feeling pressure to match Soto, he isn’t showing it.

“I don’t add that extra pressure on me,” Robles said. “I feel like if I do it’s going to change the way I play. I just know what I can do, and I’m here to do what I can do. Play my game and let everything else take care of itself. That’s what I want. I want to be part of the big league team, but I’m not going to add any extra pressure to that.”

The team clearly doesn’t want Robles to feel any extra pressure. He was playing winter ball in the Caribbean League in November, appearing in 25 games and batting .265 with a .345 on-base percentage, but club officials said they told him to cut it short to give his body a rest.

“He went through a lot last year with his injuries and coming back,” said Martinez, who also said he may bat Robles ninth as a second leadoff hitter of sorts. “He was in the big leagues, then he went to play winter ball. We kind of told him to stop playing and rest.”

There will be pressure, though. Robles will be seen, along with Soto, as the team’s replacement plan for free agent Bryce Harper. Along with a healthy Adam Eaton, the Nationals appear to be set and secure in the outfield, with Michael Taylor as a fourth outfielder as well.

Robles, though, will have to show he has been worth the wait.

“My expectations is just to be supportive of my teammates and obviously give my part to help the team win,” he said. “Anything I can do to help is going to be great.”

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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