Robles DFA'd to make room for activated Thomas

ATLANTA – Reinforcements have arrived for the Nationals offense as Lane Thomas was activated off the 10-day injured list following his left MCL sprain.

Thomas, the Nats’ best offensive player last year, has been out since April 23 with the injury. But after about a month’s worth of rehabilitation, he was finally cleared to play in games this week, making four rehab appearances with Double-A Harrisburg and going 4-for-13 with two doubles, three walks, two strikeouts, two RBIs, two stolen bases, two runs scored and an outfield assist.

“Feels great. Feels good to be back with all of the guys,” Thomas said ahead of today’s series opener against the Braves. “Physically, I feel good. So I’m just excited to get back in there.”

After his strong performance at the plate in 2023, the 29-year-old got off to a slow start this year. In 22 games with the Nats, he has hit just .184 with a .503 OPS, two home runs (his only extra-base hits), 10 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.

Thomas is in today’s starting lineup, batting second and playing right field.

“The biggest thing is that we got Lane back from the IL, so we had to make a decision,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But the upside on that is Lane's back, he's healthy, he's good to go and he's playing right field today.”

With Thomas’ activation, the Nats did have to remove someone from the active roster. After much speculation about the roster crunch this week with the outfielder’s return looming, the decision likely came down to Victor Robles, who is a pending free agent who is not getting consistent playing time, and Joey Meneses, who despite being 32 years old has three options remaining.

The final decision: Robles was designated for assignment, seemingly ending his 11-year tenure with the organization.

“It was definitely emotional,” said Martinez, who has managed Robles since 2018. “Those are always the toughest days, when you have to lose a player. Especially a guy like Vic, who I've known for many, many years and helped us win a World Series. It was tough. It was really tough. All I could tell him is I wish him the best and to keep going.”

Like last year, Robles’ season was also hampered by an early injury. After being limited to just 36 games in 2023 with back issues, the 27-year-old outfielder landed on the injured list on April 4 with a left hamstring strain. Though he was hitless before the injury, he did have a .600 on-base percentage as he took three walks and struck out only once over his first four games.

“A lot of it, for me, had to do with injuries. It really did,” Martinez said in explaining Robles' difficulty in returning to form. “I mean, he'd come back and he changed some things. For me, he's got to find what his identity is, he really does. Hopefully, he does that. He's made a lot of changes in his hitting. So hopefully, he finds that spot where he's comfortable and, for me, he's a guy that needs to get on base, steal some bases, play good defense. Be that guy that creates havoc. And I hope he finds it.”

Robles was activated on May 7, but sat on the bench for a couple of days while Jacob Young retained his position in center field.

He finally returned to the lineup on May 10 in Boston and immediately made an impact. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI and made two big plays in right field to help fuel the Nats’ 5-1 win over the Red Sox.

But then Robles reverted back to his old, frustrating ways. Two days later, he made a costly error, dropping a routine fly ball in center field. He then was caught in a rundown when he went first-to-third on a single to right but didn’t see the stop sign from third base coach Ricky Gutierrez nor Riley Adams standing on the bag. The goof ended a scoring threat. The Nats would lose the game 3-2 to drop the series.

Those kinds of mistakes have come up all too frequently in Robles’ career. It was tolerable in 2019 when he was 22 years old, the starting center fielder for the World Series champions, a Gold Glove Award finalist and sixth-place finisher for National League Rookie of the Year. It’s unacceptable five years later when there are smarter options on the roster and top prospects knocking on the door.

“We do have a lot of young outfielders that are coming,” Martinez said. “They're still a little bit away, but they are getting closer. So when you have that many good outfielders in your system, tough decisions have to be made.”

Robles himself was once one of those top prospects. Signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, he was ranked as the Nats’ top prospect and the fifth-best prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, by 2017. He made his major league debut that September and was even named to the Nats’ National League Division Series roster against the Cubs.

But injuries and mental miscues derailed his potential over the last several seasons, and they now tarnish his legacy in Washington.

“Those are the things that we look at as coaches and as a manager,” Martinez said. “Everybody goes through that. Because I know he's pressing, I know he wants to do well. I know sometimes when he does play, he tries to do a whole lot more than he's capable of doing. But like I said, for me and watching him, he just needs to go out there and be himself and do the little things correctly.”

The Nationals declined a $3.3 million option for Robles after his injury-plagued 2023 season, but still retained his rights for 2024. The two sides avoided arbitration and agreed to a one-year deal worth $2.65 million for this year.

While Robles hit .120 with a .401 OPS in 14 games, Young is hitting .260 with a .632 OPS in 42 games. The Young-er outfielder also has 3 Defensive Runs Saved in center while the veteran has -1 DRS, per FanGraphs. Not to mention top prospect James Wood is also nearing his major league debut while dominating Triple-A pitching.

Meneses could have been optioned down to the minor leagues, with the 32-year-old struggling to the tune of a .226 average, .581 OPS, two home runs and a 48 percent groundball rate in 46 games. But he is tied for second on the team with 24 RBIs while mostly hitting in the cleanup spot. So the Nationals decided this was finally the right time to move on from Robles.

If he’s not selected off waivers or traded to another team, Robles could accept a minor league assignment to stay in the Nationals organization. But he’ll likely become a free agent, ending his eight-year major league career in D.C. with a .236/.311/.356 slash line, .667 OPS, 78 doubles, 11 triples, 31 home runs, 156 RBIs, 70 stolen bases, 29 outfield assists and 13 errors.

“I've gotten really close with Vic over the last couple of years,” Thomas said. “And man, that's just an unfortunate part about what we do is there's just so many spots. I don't know if I want to touch on it more than that, but I obviously wished him well and hopefully I'll see him across the field here soon if someone takes a chance.”

Robles departs as one of the last leftovers from the 2019 championship team, leaving Patrick Corbin and Tanner Rainey as the only active players on the roster with rings from that magical season.

“He needs to go find himself and he'll help another team somewhere,” Martinez said. “And like I said, I just wish him the best. But I have a lot of feelings and emotions for Vic. We've been through a lot together. Like I said, we don't win a World Series without him roaming center field and doing the things that he did that year. It's been a tough go for him with injuries. But like I said, I think he's still a very good player, very valuable. He'll help somebody. If nothing comes around, hopefully he decides to come back here.”

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Thomas activated, Robles DFA'd

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