- - Tuesday, September 4, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Their lockers are right next to each other in the Washington Nationals clubhouse — Juan Soto and Victor Robles — the twin towers of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s victory in the Dominican Republic.

One’s arrival in the major league clubhouse this year had been delayed but much anticipated. The other has been a pleasant surprise in a season of disappointment.

Both represent a promising future for the Nationals, keeping that window of competition in the National League East still wide open, even as the club hangs on by its fingernails to the illusion of postseason play for a third straight season.

Robles — long heralded as one of the top prospects in baseball — arrived Tuesday, joining Soto, and their side-by-side lockers send a message to the rest of baseball that this major league team isn’t going anywhere.

That message represents a triumph of sorts for Rizzo, the Nationals general manager, whose first task upon taking over the job in the spring of 2009 was to rush to the Dominican Republic to save a player development program that had threatened to destroy Washington’s baseball franchise.

This was in the wake of the Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez scandal, the alleged 16-year-old Nationals prospect they signed for $1.4 million in 2006 who turned out to be a 20-year-old player past his prospect prime named Carlos David Alvarez Lugo.

The fraud resulted in the resignation of Nationals general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden and his special assistant and Dominican advisor, former Major League pitcher Jose Rijo.

Rizzo, hired in 2006 by team president Stan Kasten as an assistant general manager, was quickly dispatched by Kasten to the Dominican to clean up the mess and to save the credibility of the franchise in the baseball hotbed for talent.

Rizzo fired the entire Nationals Dominican training academy staff. He reached out to Rawlings, which was building a new academy, and they agreed to let the Nationals use the facility until they found a new home. He found a beachfront resort to house the 75 players in the Nationals’ system.

He gathered the prospects for a meeting and gave them an impassioned speech about what happened and how it wasn’t going to affect their futures. He then loaded them on two school buses, filled up two moving trucks with Nationals’ equipment and took them to their new home, where Rizzo had already put a new academy staff in place.

All this in about 72 hours.

“I scouted down there for about 15 or 20 years,” said Rizzo, who also credited Johnny DiPuglia, Nationals vice president of international operations, with the turnaround. “You have to have the trust of the people down there. What we accomplished couldn’t have been done without the relationships we built up down there.

“We’ve gone from an organization with the scandal that put us below the bottom to one with one of the most impressive and impactful Latin American operation that there is in all of baseball,” Rizzo said.

From that chaos came a number of young Dominican players — infielder Wilmer Difo and young pitchers like Jimmy Cordero and Wander Suero among others. But Robles and Soto are the two cornerstones of the Nationals’ future.

Robles, 21, was signed as a free agent in 2013 and quickly made his mark as a top prospect, rising through the Nationals farm system. He was named in 2017 by MLB Pipeline as the fifth best prospect in all of baseball.

He made his debut last Sept. 7 and finished the season with a .250 average in 13 games, but electrified the crowd every time he stepped on the field. He began this season with Class AAA Syracuse but hyperextended his elbow diving for a ball in the outfield and missed three months. He batted .276 with 10 doubles, one triple, two home runs, 14 RBI, 19 stolen bases and 32 runs scored in 52 games at Class AAA this season.

Robles was the prospect we all expected to see in Washington this year. But injuries gave Soto, 19, who signed as a free agent in the Dominican in 2015, the chance to shine. He started the season at Class A but hit his way quickly to the major leagues and is now batting .302 in 93 games with 16 home runs and 53 RBI.

He’s the frontrunner for National League Rookie of the Year honors.

“It’s pretty exciting (to have both of them in Washington),” manager Dave Martinez said. “I can’t wait to get both of them out there and watch them play together. Everyone fell in love with Soto because he’s done so well. He’s been incredible. You know, Victor Robles is an unbelievable athlete and I think he’s going to do just as good. I’m looking forward to getting him out there and getting him some playing time.”

Soto said he has been friends with Robles since he signed with the Nationals in 2015. “He is a really good guy,” Soto said.

Robles said he is looking forward to playing with Soto. “I’m very proud of him,” Robles said. “He has done a great job. God has given him a gift.”

With some help from Rizzo.

Thom Loverro’s podcast, “Cigars & Curveballs,” is available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver network.

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