How secure is Robles' job in center field?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It was something of an offhand comment, thrown in near the end of a longer answer to a question about his bench options to begin the season. But what Davey Martinez said Wednesday made a few ears perk up.

“We’re going to have a battle for center field with Young and Robles,” the Nationals manager said in his first media session of the spring, suggesting Victor Robles and Jacob Young were on equal footing entering camp.

That was a bit surprising, if only because Robles was re-signed over the winter for $2.65 million after missing most of the season with a back injury. Young, meanwhile, began 2023 at Single-A Wilmington and finished with 33 big-league games in D.C.

So, the inevitable follow-up question came Thursday during Martinez’s second media session of the spring: Is there an open competition in center field, with both Robles and Young having the same chances of starting Opening Day?

“If I had a say right now, I’d say Vic has a little bit of the upper hand,” Martinez clarified. “But I liked everything I saw about Jacob. He’s young, but you’ve got to remember, Vic is still really young. And he got hurt. I want to give him the opportunity to come back this year, and have a good spring training and see what he can do. I love what Jacob did, and I know he can play up here and help us win games. I think he showed that, and I think he’s going to get better. But Vic was our center fielder, and right now I say they’re going to compete. If they both were equal, I would say that Vic has the upper hand.”

It's not like Robles hasn’t been given ample opportunity to prove he deserves the job. Over parts of seven major-league seasons, he’s done just enough to make you believe he will stick. And just enough to make you believe he won’t.

Robles’ 2023 season, though, was his strangest to date. Tasked by club officials with cutting down on his swing and improving his two-strike approach, he showed significant improvement, batting .299 with a .385 on-base percentage in 36 games. But then he injured his back in early May, and aside from a brief five-game return in June, he spent the rest of the season on the injured list.

After Alex Call struggled in Robles’ place, the Nationals promoted Young in late-August, completing the 2021 draft pick’s rapid rise through four levels of the organization in a single year. He showed some flashes of speed and ability during his 33 games, but his final totals (.252/.322/.336) were pedestrian.

Common sense suggests Young needs more time in the minors – he played only four games at Triple-A Rochester prior to his final promotion – but it does appear the Nats are giving him serious consideration for a spot on the Opening Day roster. Martinez mentioned the 24-year-old will get a look at all three outfield positions this spring, so perhaps he’s also up for a possible bench role.

As for Robles, he still needs to prove he’s healthy after last year’s back troubles, though Martinez isn’t worried about that.

“No, he’s good,” the manager said. “I watched videos of him this winter. He’s strong. He’s full bill of health. He’s ready to go, and I’m excited about that. Before he got hurt, he was swinging the bat really well. He was playing really well. Hopefully he’ll continue to do that this year.”

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