Robles cleared to play winter ball, still in Nats' 2024 plans

NASHVILLE – In rattling off the positions they need to fill this winter, the Nationals will say first base, third base and left field. They’ll acknowledge Luis García isn’t guaranteed to retain his starting job at second base. But what about center field?

When the 2023 season ended, the Nats were playing Jacob Young every day. And though the rookie (who opened the year in Single-A) acquitted himself well, he hardly has the track record or pedigree to suggest he deserves to be handed the job.

Which brings us to Victor Robles. The guy who has started in center field on Opening Day each of the last five seasons.

Robles started Opening Day this year, but he went on the injured list in May with a back ailment, and after a brief return in June he went right back on the IL and remained there the rest of the year. He was very much out-of-sight, out-of-mind as the season concluded, leaving his future in doubt.

The Nationals, though, have retained the 26-year-old. They initially declined a $3.3 million club option for him but soon after agreed to terms on a lesser deal to avoid arbitration. He is, by all accounts, expected to remain a prominent player on the team in 2024.

Provided he’s healthy enough.

Robles’ rehab from his back injury was slow, and updates on his condition were minimal along the way. But by season’s end, he was close to resuming baseball activities. And at long last on Monday, he was cleared to start playing winter ball games in the Dominican Republic.

The Nationals will need to see some substantial evidence of Robles’ health. But if he makes it through the winter in good shape, it appears he’ll come to spring training the frontrunner to start in center field once again.

“It’s all going to depend on his health,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’m glad that he’ll be back. We definitely could use him.”

The Nats definitely could use the best version of Robles, or something resembling it. Of course, that version of him hasn’t been common in some time. After a strong rookie season in 2019 that culminated with a World Series title, Robles hasn’t come close to duplicating the performance.

There were a few encouraging signs this season, albeit in a limited sample. Robles finished with a career-high .299 batting average and .385 on-base percentage, showing a new ability to lay off breaking balls outside the zone and prolong plate appearances. He also was successful on eight of nine stolen-base attempts, though he struggled defensively (perhaps in part due to his back injury).

What would the Nationals need to see from Robles to keep him as their center fielder?

“Be healthy, and be Victor,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Be Victor of 2019, when he was a rookie playing with his hair on fire, and he was a pretty damn good player. We know it’s in there, and we’re waiting for it to resurface. A healthy Victor playing like he played in 2019 is an asset to the team. He’s an elite defensive guy, he’s showed some power, he’s showed he’s capable of stealing a base. To get him back to where he was is important for us.”

There’s an important caveat to all this: The Nationals are hoping one or more of their top outfield prospects are big league ready sometime in 2024. If Dylan Crews, in particular, is called up at some point, he’s probably going to usurp the center field job from whomever holds it at the time.

So even if healthy and productive, Robles could still find himself on the outside looking in before long.

Until then, he still appears to be the Nats’ most likely option in center field.

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