A familiar story for Robles, on the field and in arbitration

Less than one year ago, Victor Robles and the Nationals were unable to come to terms on a salary figure for the 2022 season, so the two sides filed for arbitration. This was after the lockout-delayed spring training had begun, creating a very narrow window for negotiations and for a hearing to be scheduled.

The disparity between the two sides’ official arbitration filings ($500,000) wasn’t nothing. Robles was seeking $2.1 million, while the Nats countered at $1.6 million. He was the team’s only arbitration-eligible player who didn’t sign before the deadline.

But as so often is the case in these matters, they did ultimately agree to a deal before ever setting foot in an arbitration hearing. Twelve days later, just as camp was about to wrap up, Robles and the Nationals agreed to a one-year, $1.65 million contract.

That’s right, Robles accepted an amount that was only $50,000 greater than the team’s official arbitration offer.

It was with that prior negotiation in mind that the two sides once again were unable to work out a deal prior to this year’s deadline, which came Friday night. So once again, Robles was the Nationals’ lone arbitration-eligible player who did not come to terms in time and was forced to submit a formal offer to the league.

The disparity this time isn’t as great; it’s only $300,000. Robles is seeking $2.6 million, while the Nats are offering $2.3 million, according to MLB.com. So you would have to think the two sides will once again be able to work something out before the hearings take place next month in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The question, of course, is whether the haggling is worth it for Robles at this stage of his career.

The enigmatic center fielder didn’t exactly exceed expectations in 2022. He finished with a .224 batting average, a career-worst .273 on-base percentage and a career-worst .584 OPS that ranked as the second-lowest among all National League players who took at least 400 plate appearances.

Robles did rediscover his defensive form from several years earlier, finishing with 12 Defensive Runs Saved and earning a nod as a top-three vote-getter for the Gold Glove Award at his position. And that helped him flip his bWAR back into positive territory for the first time since 2019, at 1.8.

It probably also saved his job for now. With none of their top outfield prospects ready to debut just yet, and with a shoestring budget established by an ownership group that has not yet been able to sell the franchise, the Nationals have retained Robles and essentially declared him their Opening Day center fielder again in spite of his offensive struggles.

But make no mistake, there are prospects on the way. Robert Hassell III is probably the closest to big-league ready and could debut sometime later this season. James Wood, Elijah Green and Cristhian Vaquero are further away but clearly on the way up the organizational ladder.

So this really should be a make-or-break moment for Robles. The Nationals have given him all kinds of extra rope the last three seasons. Eventually, they’re going to pull back.

It’s incumbent upon Robles to show real improvement at the plate this season, not to mention real improvement on the bases, while maintaining his form in the outfield.

If he doesn’t? Well, he may not have another opportunity to haggle over his salary next winter.

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