Spring storylines: Pressure on Robles, García?

We’ve entered the homestretch of the offseason at last. Pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach on Wednesday, at which point the 2024 season begins in earnest.

So we’re going to spend these final days of winter previewing the top stories that are likely to play out at spring training. And one of the more intriguing ones involves a couple of still-young everyday players who could be running out of time to retain their jobs.

Neither Victor Robles nor Luis García Jr. enjoyed a positive 2023 season. Robles because he barely played due to a back injury that proved far more serious than initially believed. García because he regressed at the plate and in the field and wound up demoted to Triple-A for a brief while.

Entering the offseason, there was real reason to wonder if one or both wouldn’t be back this spring. Or, at the very least, if the Nationals might bring in some competition to push them.

At this point, that hasn’t happened. Robles enters camp as the starting center field. García comes to West Palm Beach as the starting second baseman. But neither should feel totally secure about his standing yet.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Robles, who despite debuting in September 2017 is still only 26. It feels like this has been the narrative surrounding him ever since, with outsiders wondering if the Nats were running out of patience for him to live up to his full potential while the organization kept putting him out there and hoping for the best.

It actually seemed to be working in his favor early last season. After years of pleas from coaches to cut down his swing and show more patience at the plate, Robles did just that. As of May 4, he was batting .302, reaching base at a .394 clip and showing the kind of two-strike approach everyone had dreamed of for years.

Then came a series in Arizona, in which Robles hurt his back sliding into second base. It didn’t seem like much at the time. It wound up ruining his entire season.

Robles returned to play five games in June, but it was clear he wasn’t 100 percent. That was especially true in the field, where he misplayed several balls and at one point looked like he wasn’t giving full effort because his back wouldn’t allow it. The Nats placed him back on the injured list, and he never made it back before season’s end.

That led to speculation the team might non-tender Robles this winter. Instead, he and the Nationals agreed on a $2.65 million contract to avoid arbitration, sending him into his walk year with a guaranteed salary. That alone suggests there’s no chance he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.

The pressure will still be on Robles, though, because the cavalry is coming from within. The Nats’ outfield-heavy farm system is about to produce several highly touted prospects, with James Wood, Dylan Crews and Robert Hassell III all in the mix to make their major-league debuts sometime this year. If he doesn’t want to be bumped by one of the kids, he’s going to have to not only prove he’s healthy but that he can remain a productive and consistent player for the first time in a long time.

“We know it’s in there, and we’re waiting for it to resurface,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in December. “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.”

García hasn’t been around quite as long as Robles, but he did debut in 2020, and he’s now taken 1,245 big-league plate appearances. There have been glimpses of a quality player in there, but they haven’t been consistent.

Still only 23, García should have more time to prove himself. But how much longer will that be?

We got an idea of the organization’s growing dissatisfaction last summer when the Nats optioned him to Triple-A Rochester in early August, even though they had no obvious replacement for him at second base. They made it clear they wanted García to work not only on putting up better offensive numbers in the minors, but putting in more prep work and making sure he was fully engaged on every pitch of every game.

García returned to D.C. in September and performed better, batting .304/.360/.507 over his final 22 games while getting charged with only two errors in the field. But was that enough to make him feel secure heading into 2024?

The Nationals didn’t sign any veteran second basemen to challenge García, though there’s still time if they choose to do that. There are a number of others already in the organization who will get a look at second base this spring: Ildemaro Vargas, Jake Alu, Rule 5 draftee Nasim Nunez, prospects Darren Baker and Trey Lipscomb. It seems unlikely any would be selected over García to start on Opening Day, but Baker and Lipscomb in particular could make the kind of impression that convinces club officials one of them will be ready later this season.

Until then, it’s on García to seize the job for himself.

“I think I sent the message to him when we sent him down (last summer),” manager Davey Martinez said in December. “And it hurt me because I love the kid. But he’s got to get better. He’s going on his fourth year now with us, and I know what the upside is with Luis. But we’ve got to get it out of him. He’s got to be consistent.”

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