WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Four hundred eighty games into his major league career, what exactly is Victor Robles?
Is he the dynamic rookie who seized the Nationals’ center field job in 2019, delivered 33 doubles, 17 homers and premier defense to help his team win the World Series? Is he the hitter who has produced a paltry .597 OPS in the three years since? Is he an all-glove, no-bat outfielder destined to bat ninth for the rest of time? Is he an out machine on the bases who can’t avoid killer mistakes?
The Nationals still don’t know for sure. Or, at least, they still believe it’s worth trying to find out for sure. Robles, for his part, agrees the time has come to step up in this, his fifth full season in the majors.
“Absolutely, I think myself and my team know I haven’t given my 100 percent potential that they expected, and that I expect,” he said Wednesday, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I think with the help of God this season, I will have a great season and show them what I can do.”
It’s been roughly the same story for Robles every spring since 2019. He comes to camp hearing the Nationals want him to do more, to play smarter, to be a more well-rounded ballplayer. And he insists he will do all that.
Then by season’s end, the team is left facing the same questions all over again following a disappointing performance. That’s right where the Nats find themselves yet again this spring with their most confounding player.
“I think this is the year, for me, where he gets back to who he is,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s something that we’ve talked to him over the years about. He wants to do a lot. And I know he puts effort into really trying to help us win. And think we really had to take a step back with him. He had to take a step back and try to focus on who he really wants to be. That’s what we’re trying to help him with now.”
Who, exactly, is Robles? The Nationals believe he can be a Gold Glove center fielder who cuts down on his swing, gets on base more and does the so-called “little things” right. Trouble is, aside from the defense part, he hasn’t come close to meeting those criteria.
Why will this year be any different from last year, or the year before that, or the year before that?
“Seeing him so far this spring, there’s a lot more maturity,” Martinez insisted. “I see him really focusing on the simple things that we’ve tried to get him to do. He’s actually focused more on that than all the other stuff. And he looks good. He made some changes with his swing, and so far, so good. I like it.”
It’s remarkable to consider Robles is the only remaining member of the Nationals’ regular World Series lineup from 2019. It’s also worth remembering he’s still only 25.
Truth be told, the Nats might well have moved on from Robles by now if they only had a viable alternative in center field. They don’t yet, but the cavalry is coming. Nearly every top prospect in the organization now is an outfielder, all of them athletic players who could stick in center field. None is big-league-ready yet, but Robert Hassell III could force the issue before season’s end.
So Robles may finally be facing real pressure to perform or be out of luck. He’s already seen every one of his teammates from 2019 move on. He knows he could be next.
“When you’re coming up, you hear about how much the rosters change and how teams make their moves,” he said. “But now that I’m really experiencing it with us, you can tell it’s a business and they have to do what they have to do. You notice the big difference on the team.”
For now, the job is still his. Nobody’s banging on the door to take over. Robles will get yet another chance to prove he can be the guy, not just now but for the long haul.
It’s up to him to actually seize it once and for all, or leave the Nationals with no choice but to move on.
“I’ve always loved Vic as a person,” Martinez said. “And he has moments where he’s unbelievable. Now we’ve got to make sure those moments are consistent. If we can get him to do that, we’re going to have a really, really good, polished player.”