Can Robles take back his spot in center field?

A few days ago, we discussed the curious case at first base for the Nationals heading into spring training. It's an interesting situation to think about for the team's long-term future, but it isn't a very pressing matter as it relates to the upcoming season.

The same cannot be said for the situation in center field and how it relates to Victor Robles.

It's been a hard fall from grace for Robles, formerly the organization's top prospect, who was believed to be even better than Juan Soto. He was scouted as a five-tool player, who could hit for average, hit for power, display speed, flash his glove and throw the ball far.

He made his highly anticipated major league debut on Sept. 7, 2017, and reached base for the first time three days later, shockingly after being hit by a pitch. His speed and potential as a defensive replacement earned him a spot on the Nationals playoff roster, setting expectations even higher.

Unfortunately, his 2018 season was hampered by an hyperextended elbow at Triple-A in April. With Robles hurt, that opened the door for Soto to join the Nats when Howie Kendrick went down with an injury in May. That door never closed.

Robles did work his way back to the majors that season and finished with a .288 average, three home runs, 10 RBIs and three stolen bases in 21 games, setting up the possibility of a bounceback season the following year.

Then it all came together for Robles in 2019. Making the opening day roster for the first time, Robles went on to hit .255 with 86 runs scored, 33 doubles, three triples, 17 homers, 65 RBIs and 28 stolen bases, while being a Gold Glove finalist and helping the Nationals win the World Series.

Nationals-bag-bat-dugout-sidebar.jpgBut then Robles' regression began. There were concerns about the weight he gained entering spring training. And although the pandemic-shortened 2020 season was hard on everyone, Robles really struggled through the 60-game schedule, only hitting .220 with three homers and four stolen bases in 52 games. His bat was off, he seemed slower than usual and his defense dipped.

No need to panic. Plenty of players struggled during that unconventional season. We saw what Robles was capable of in 2019, so he could return to form with a normal season in 2021.

That thought started on the right foot, with Robles showing up to camp having dropped some of the weight from the previous year and looking more like his athletic self.

But tabbed as the leadoff hitter in manager Davey Martinez's lineup, Robles never got a firm hold on that spot. And then with his fluctuation up and down the lineup, he never really got into a rhythm. His defense returned to a level we saw in 2019, sure. But the offense and basestealing threat never really came back around.

Then came Lane Thomas, who was a last-minute trade deadline acquisition from the Cardinals in exchange for the declining Jon Lester. The 25-year-old outfielder started his Nationals career at Triple-A Rochester, so he posed no immediate threat to Robles' job in Washington.

But the similarities were already there, so it was hard not to compare the two. Thomas was labeled as the "fastest baserunner" and "best defensive outfielder" in the Cardinals organization by Baseball America. Sound familiar?

With Robles hitting barely above the Mendoza line and with an injury to Joe Ross, the Nationals recalled Thomas on Aug. 15, putting some heat under Robles' seat.

Thomas came up and did exactly what his scouting reports said he was capable of: He was disciplined at the plate, took his walks, didn't strike out a bunch, made hard contact when he did swing, showed speed on the basepaths and played strong defense. All the makings of a good center field and leadoff candidate.

Now Thomas wasn't without his faults, either. He occasionally ran into some trouble while on the bases and made a few, but not many, mistakes in the outfield.

But all in all, Thomas was outplaying Robles and earning his spot in the Nationals lineup on a daily basis. With not enough playing time (or production on Robles' part) to go around, the Nats eventually optioned the former top prospect to Triple-A, not to see him in the bigs again for the 2021 season.

So where does that leave the center field spot heading into spring camp?

Well, Thomas is the assumed starter and leadoff hitter. Robles is right behind him with a chance to earn his spot back, as the Nationals, at least publicly, aren't giving up on him just yet.

"I've said this before, and I mean this with all my heart: We want Victor to be successful up here," Martinez said after Robles was sent down to Rochester. "He's still young, he's (24) years old, he's got a bright future here with us. ... I mean, I know this is not the last we're going to see of Victor."

That's nice to say, but the reality of the situation is that Robles is down to his last strike. He needs to be able to show some resemblance of his 2019 self and flash his five-tool potential to either take back the starting spot or at least give the Nats a reason to keep him around.

Maybe he plays well and Thomas falters a little bit. Maybe they both play well and the Nats figure out a way to fit them both in the lineup and outfield (they both have some experience in the corner outfield spots).

But Robles can't control what Thomas does. Only what he does himself. And that has to start with just getting back to the basics that made him a former top prospect.

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