NORWICH, Conn.—With Nationals center fielder Victor Robles skyrocketing up our rankings, I drove down to Connecticut to watch him while the Nationals' New York-Penn League affiliate in town for a three-game series.
Between a scheduled day off for him the first game, an injury in the next one and a rainout the third game, Robles played just six innings the whole series.
Six innings was enough to understand what all the excitement was about.
Even in a limited look, Robles showed the way he can impact the game at the plate, in the field and on the bases. A lean 6 feet, 185 pounds, Robles is a premium athlete with an electric tool set, including speed and arm strength that both earn 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale. Robles' tools, righthanded hitting ability and instincts for the game would have made him a high first-round pick had he been a high school senior in the United States this year instead of an international free agent the Nationals acquired for a low six-figure bonus out of the Dominican Republic two years ago when he was 16.
"The tools are there," Auburn manager Gary Cathcart said. "There's five of them and he's got all of them. He impacts the game in a whole bunch of ways. It's almost like we're not talking about an 18-year-old kid because of the way he does impact a game, the way he gets on base, the way he plays defense, his at-bats, his two-strike approach—everything is beyond his years. He's got a chance to be very special."
Robles grew up playing baseball in the Robinson De La Cruz youth league in Santo Domingo. He started there when he was nine, then when he was 15 he joined the program of Franklin Ferreras, a Dominican trainer whose notable signings include Red Sox center fielder Manuel Margot ($800,000 in 2011) and Dodgers outfielder Starling Heredia ($2.6 million this year).
While Margot and Heredia played in the Dominican Prospect League, Robles didn't play in the DPL or other trainer-organized leagues as an amateur. His athleticism and tool set still stood out, with Dominican scouting supervisor Moises De La Mota and Dominican scout Modesto Ulloa doing a lot of the legwork to identify and evaluate Robles. On July 2, 2013, the Nationals signed Robles for $225,000, the second-highest bonus the Nationals awarded that year after the $900,000 they paid Dominican third baseman Anderson Franco.
"Victor always had a great tool set and was a very high-energy guy," said Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia, "to the point where he was so energetic that on the bases, he wouldn't stop. He would try to make a single into a double, a double to triple and triples to a home run. But you loved his energy. He was about a 5-10, 150-pound guy who showed a plus arm, had a very quick bat and was a very quick-twitch guy, like a young wide receiver in the States, and he had a very good knowledge of the strike zone. He didn't swing at a lot of breaking balls like a lot of young kids do."
Mark Scialabba, the Nationals' director of player development who was in town for the Connecticut series, first saw Robles playing at Dominican instructional league the fall after he signed.
"He was a very high-energy player who showed quick-twitch actions, very good feel for hitting at a young age and was just an exciting young player with raw tools and a lot of potential," Scialabba said. "The way he stood out was because of how he played the game in all facets, with a lot of energy."
Robles batted .313/.408/.484 with 16 walks, 26 strikeouts, three home runs and 22 stolen bases in 31 attempts during 47 games in the Dominican Summer League, ranking as a DSL Top 20 prospect after the season.
The excitement around Robles built this spring in Florida, when Robles was tearing up extended spring training games, then carried it over when the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League started. After Robles batted .360/.473/.547 in 23 GCL games, the Nationals felt they had to give him a new challenge, so near the end of June they bumped him up to the NY-Penn League, a circuit heavy on former college players.
That hasn't slowed him one bit. Through 25 games, Robles is batting .343/.407/.515 with six walks, 14 strikeouts, two home runs and six steals in nine attempts.
"The difference is that the pitchers, they don't miss their spots," Robles said in Spanish of the jump to the NY-Penn League. "Everybody here is better . . . I'm just trying to do what the team wants me to do. Stealing bases, getting on base, bunting the ball and being aggressive."
Put Robles in the 2015 draft and there's no doubt he has first-round talent. Center fielder Daz Cameron, four months older than Robles, was the No. 5 prospect on the BA 500. Cameron went No. 37 overall in the draft, but he signed with the Astros for $4 million, tied for the fifth-highest bonus in the draft.
While Cameron is a talented prospect himself, Robles' tools across the board are just as good, with better pure speed and arm strength. While Cameron has had a steady pro debut between the GCL and the Rookie-level Appalachian League, Robles has clearly outperformed him at the plate.
"It's all part of that fearlessness he has," Cathcart said. "He's not intimidated by anything. Who's on the mound doesn't really concern him. He's got a two-strike approach where he chokes up on the bat a little bit and gets a little bit more down in his legs. He's not real interested in striking out, so he wants to do everything he can to put the ball in play because he knows that if he puts the ball in play, he's got a chance with that speed. It's a very good approach for such a young kid."
During batting practice, Robles showed excellent bat speed, with a clean setup and a short, fluid stroke from the right side with good balance. He uses his legs well, stays inside the ball and keeps the bat head through the hitting zone. Robles doesn't put on a big power display during BP, staying within his line-drive approach with mostly gap power, though he's shown occasional over-the-fence sock in games that should continue to improve with natural strength progression.
"He has tremendous bat speed with quick, strong hands, very good bat-to-ball instincts and good extension through the baseball," Scialabba said. "Right now he looks to drive the ball to both gaps, but he also has some ability to drive the ball over the fence to the pull side right now. That's something that's going to continue to evolve as he gets older. He certainly has the makings of a hitter who's not only able to hit for average and get on base but also potentially hit for power down the road."
Even for six innings against Connecticut on Aug. 24, Robles showed off his tools, athleticism and baseball savvy, along with the smaller areas of his game he still needs to improve. Leading off the game, Robles hit a ground ball the opposite way for a single to right field, then promptly stole second base.
His next time up, Robles pulled an 88-mph fastball for a single to left field, then moved to second simply because of the threat of his speed. Before Tigers lefthander Tyler Alexander even threw a pitch, he made two pickoff attempts to first base, the second of which was an errant throw that allowed Robles to jog to second base. When Max Schrock singled to center field, Robles had to pause to make sure the second baseman didn't catch the ball, then used his wheels to score anyway.
In the sixth inning, Corey Baptist hit a line drive that looked like a certain base hit and likely a double into the right-center field gap. Instead, Robles got a quick first step off the bat, showed outstanding range to his left, dove and made an incredible catch at full extension. All that was missing was the cape on his back.
After three more at-bats in the inning, Robles jogged off the field and removed himself from the game, as he felt dizziness from hitting his head while making the catch, though he returned to the lineup three days later and has been playing regularly since then.
"He's definitely beyond his years," Cathcart said. "He's got the total tool package. He's exciting. And what's more exciting is that he's pretty advanced as far as the game goes at 18. He's not awed by anything. He loves to play and is very energetic. It's just a matter of smoothing out the edges and teaching him how to react to different situations. He's a still learning the game, he's a young kid, but we're very excited to have him. It's very important for us the next couple years to really teach him all the little things in the game, because a guy like that can move pretty quick."
Those little things major leaguers do that we often take for granted are still noticeable as Robles, like any 18-year-old, learns the finer points of the game, with several examples even in those six innings against Connecticut. Robles already has some of it down, especially when it comes to hustling on every play.
In the first inning, Tigers second baseman Patrick MacKenzie stole second. The catcher's throw bounced off the second baseman's glove and went into shallow left field, where shortstop Ian Sagdal was there to pick it up, but Robles was charging in hard from center field to back up the play and would have been there to protect from the runner going to third if necessary.
"That's the stuff I'm talking about for a young kid," Cathcart said. "Gary Thurman, our outfield and baserunning coordinator, is very diligent about making sure all our outfielders are always going somewhere to back up on a routine play on the infield or on a stolen base like you saw. That's just some of the stuff I was talking about. He's a young kid, but he always seems to be in the right place. He'll make his mistakes—sometimes he gets a little over-aggressive on the bases—but that's the stuff you like. You like to be able to reign guys in as opposed to the other way around. He'll be fun to watch develop, that's for sure."
Then there are other times where Robles is still learning how to respond to the situation of the game. Later in the first inning with one out and a runner on second base, A.J. Simcox lined a single to right-center field. Robles used his speed to cut off the ball in the gap, but instead of taking advantage of his arm strength to try to erase the runner at home where he had a play, he tossed the ball into second base.
"He's so well-schooled in the way we do things, that he knows that if he goes four or five steps to his left, generally he's going to throw the ball to second base," Cathcart said. "But he didn't realize, I don't think, that there was only one out. So with the ball being just barely above head high, the runner actually had to come back towards second in case it was caught by the second baseman—except he didn't realize that. He actually had a play at home plate there, but he had to travel so far, he's thinking the runner took off right away and that he didn't have a chance. He didn't realize that with less than two outs and the ball being hit the way it was, the runner had to go back to second not to get doubled off to make sure it got by the second baseman, so he would have actually had a play. It's one of those things we spend a lot of time the day after going over his game the night before, like we do with everybody else, and that's something we'll bring up to him tomorrow."
With Auburn up 2-1 in the fourth inning with no outs and a runner on first base, Robles tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt to the pitcher—a play Cathcart said Robles did on his own—but the umpire called him out because his foot was out of the box when he bunted the ball.
"We've been working on his base hit bunting to third base, so obviously if he bunts there, he needs to bunt that ball to third. But all this stuff is just him learning games, learning game situations and what he should do in certain situations. That there called for him swinging the bat, or if he was going to bunt to bunt to third. I don't know if he was trying to bunt the ball past the pitcher or what, but it didn't look like the technique he usually uses to bunt the ball to third. It's one of those game situations we'll talk about tomorrow and have a conversation with him about what he was thinking so he can file it away for next time."
Most of Robles' peers are still in the DSL or a Rookie-level complex league, so these are all normal things to see from an 18-year-old. Things like learning about positioning himself in center field instead of just running down balls on athletic ability may seem nitpicky at this age, but these are the finer details of the game that matter so much to coaches in player development so that a player's transition to the major leagues is as seamless as possible. With most 18-year-olds, a team usually has another four or five years to make sure those little details are refined in the minors. With Robles, he might not be there that long. The good thing is that Robles has shown he can quickly absorb that information to make himself a better player.
"He's very cerebral," Scialabba said, "someone who wants to learn and get better. He has a high baseball IQ and wants to learn, so he's always trying to make adjustments . . . He was someone who stood out asking questions in English, which just shows you how much he wants to learn about things like when to go with certain outs and when to stand pat. He's always trying to learn how to use his speed in the proper way to help the team."
The upside Robles brings evokes some lofty names, ones we should probably wait until he hits full-season ball before we begin throwing them around. Even below that, Desmond Jennings had a similar profile as a prospect, while Starling Marte had comparable athleticism and tools, except that at 18, Marte was struggling in the DSL, with Robles having much more advanced pitch recognition.
Among current prospects, both physically and in terms of skill set, Robles has some similarities to Margot, a player DiPuglia helped scout with the Red Sox before he joined the Nationals and ranked as the No. 24 prospect in baseball at midseason. Except Margot also played in the NY-Penn League when he was 18, and while he held his own by hitting .270/.346/.351 in 49 games and ranked as the league's No. 7 prospect, Robles has flourished at the plate.
"He's fun to watch," DiPuglia said. "He can make a highlight defensive play, steal three bases or hit for the cycle. And every team he plays for, he's an Energizer Bunny . . . It's a long ways away, but he has a chance to be a really special guy."