How should the Nationals handle Victor Robles?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - There’s no question Victor Robles is a special player. If anyone misunderstood this indisputable fact, spring training has driven home the point.

The top Nationals prospect is just 20, has already made his major league debut and appeared in a playoff series. What’s next on his to-do list?

Many think he should be on the Nationals’ 25-man opening day roster, even though there seems to be no clear opening for him to play. And every time Robles steps onto the field in a Grapefruit League game, he does something that hints that his time has come.

The ball jumps off his bat with a sound so unique that people not paying attention to batting practice suddenly turn their heads when he’s hitting. He seems to square everything up, make solid contact and send balls a distance. That some of them are caught, or that some end up as harmless ground balls, is inconsequential. The sound his bat makes when it strikes a ball is, for lack of a better word, different.

Robles Dugout Congrats Sidebar.jpgWhen he moves about the outfield, he seems to glide effortlessly. He was playing center field a few days ago when a ball was hit into the gap and the batter took a turn around first base as if he were going for a double. But Robles’ long strides got him to the ball before it split the gap, and in one motion, he gloved it and heaved the ball toward second base, holding the runner to a single. He’ll leap, dive and crash into walls - and when he does the latter, an organization collectively holds its breath. You don’t want your star of the future hurt in a meaningless spring training game, though Robles seems to have only one gear when he’s playing: drive. He doesn’t know how to let up off the gas or go at 80 percent. That’s one of the reasons for his quick ascent through the minor league system.

On the basepaths, he’s bouncing off first base on the balls of his feet, almost daring the opposing pitcher to ignore him and throw the ball plateward. When he runs, Robles accelerates quickly - perhaps too quickly. He’ll eventually get the knack of not sliding past the base. Though as his power develops, slides are going to be less important.

And through it all, Robles has fun. It’s clear that he enjoys the game he’s chosen as his vocation. Watch the way he always smiles as he interacts with teammates or the way he seems a little taken aback by fans’ applause. He’s both humble and going 90 mph at the same time. General manager Mike Rizzo likes to talk about players who play like their hair is on fire. Robles shows a rookie’s demeanor, but he goes all-out all the time. He makes people take notice.

“Oh, he’s fun to watch,” manager Davey Martinez said the other day when asked for the umpteenth time this spring about what he’s seen from Robles.

Is he ready to make a major league roster? Probably. He certainly doesn’t seem overmatched by anything that’s come his way during Grapefruit League play - much like he seemed comfortable last September and during the National League Division Series. There’s no deer in the headlights with this youngster, just steely determination and an all-in mentality. Scouts I’ve talked to rave about Robles and how he has the intangibles that either exist or don’t, but can’t be coached.

But there’s a problem looming. There’s really no room for him on the Nationals roster at this point. It’s not because he’s hitting just .222/.256/.389 through 15 spring games. The numbers are only going to grow as Robles does. It’s more a case of the timing being all wrong.

Right now, the Nationals outfield is full, assuming Adam Eaton returns to full health to man left field, Michael A. Taylor starts the season in center field and Bryce Harper takes his place in right field. Barring some unforeseen problem - an injury that shelves one of the starting outfielders for an extended period - there just aren’t enough at-bats to warrant carrying Robles on the 25-man roster.

Rizzo has been blunt on this point: Robles will play somewhere when games start in April. It does the Nationals no good to have him sit on the bench as some kind of can’t-wait-to-see-him insurance policy. He can fill that role at Triple-A Syracuse (or even Double-A Harrisburg, if the Nats want him closer, though the brass probably would like to see how he fares against pitching one rung down from the majors). Playing time is critical for his development.

The September call-up started Robles’ arbitration eligibility clock ticking, albeit very quietly. He accrued 25 days of service time in the majors. At three years of service time, he would be eligible to salary arbitration, meaning a big jump in pay, assuming Robles continues on an upward trajectory. He could get an extra year of salary arbitration if he’s just shy of three full years of service time, which would make him a Super Two player.

The key is making sure that Robles doesn’t exceed 86 days of service in the previous season and rank in the top 22 percent of two-year players in service time. That’s when he starts getting expensive. If Robles does all the things he’s supposed to do - hits for average, learns to hit for more power, uses his speed as an offensive weapon and plays strong defense - he won’t be making the major league minimum of $545,000 for very long (and he’ll make the $225,000 signing bonus he got when he signed out of the Dominican Republic as an amateur free agent in July 2012 look like a bargain for a player of his caliber).

Remember three springs ago, when the Cubs’ Kris Bryant was tearing up the Cactus League? By waiting until April 16 to summon Bryant from Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs prevented him from accruing the 172 days of service time needed to get a full season of credit. This was a move calculated to prevent Bryant from reaching free agency any sooner than the Cubs wanted; the Cubs hold team control over him through the 2021 season instead of 2020. And in the big-money world of baseball, a season of savings is no trivial matter.

Robles finds himself in the same position, although he’s not shredding Grapefruit League pitching just yet. Right now, Robles isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2020 or destined for free agency until 2023. For strictly financial reasons, it’s in the Nats’ best interests to keep it that way.

Assuming he’s sent to Triple-A, Robles can force the Nationals’ hands by mashing International League pitching. It’s hard to ignore a young hitter who’s doing damage night after night. Harper didn’t spend a full season at any minor league level and played in only 130 games on the farm before he reached the majors. The Nationals have carefully monitored Robles’ progress through 332 minor league games over the past four seasons. Like Harper, he’s never played a full season for an affiliate. Like Harper, he probably won’t.

Robles’ time will come, just not at the beginning of the season. Count the 25 days he spent on the Nats roster in September, add another couple of weeks to provide a small cushion, and you’ve got the number of days the Nationals will likely keep Robles in the minors this season. Not to punish him, not because he’s not worthy now. But because they’re looking long term with a valuable asset who will one day command a high salary. And should Harper depart D.C. for free agency next winter as expected, how better to potentially replace him than the exciting and toolsy player fans have been hearing about?

In all likelihood, Robles’ time will come before Harper bolts for big bucks (assuming the Lerner family doesn’t back up a Brinks truck to keep him). And by the time Robles is driving balls into the gaps and speeding around the bases at Nationals Park, all the angst surrounding whether he starts the season with the Nats or Syracuse Chiefs will have been forgotten. Just as people forgot that the Nats farmed out Harper and Stephen Strasburg, to name a couple of players who seem to have survived the machinations made necessary by the game’s financial landscape.

Martinez may be a rookie manager, but he’s showing the diplomacy of a veteran field boss when asked about what path the Nats will take with Robles.

“He’s going to be really fun to watch,” Martinez said, “when the time’s right and he gets the opportunity.”

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