With prospects on his heels, Robles knows it's now or never

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – In the clubhouse, he’s bouncing around, a wide smile on his face. On the field, he’s yelling out to teammates in Spanish and English, clearly in his element.

Whether any of that enthusiasm translates into positive results once he actually starts playing baseball games again remains to be seen, but for now Victor Robles is just thrilled to be healthy and participating in spring training fully with his Nationals teammates.

“I feel great,” the 26-year-old center fielder said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I’m very appreciative and blessed that I’m here with full health. Very excited to be here.”

It was no guarantee Robles would be back here the way things looked at season’s end. Sidelined all but a few days since early May due to a back injury, and with younger players gunning for his job, Robles reasonably could have seen his time with the Nats come to an end at last.

The Nationals actually declined a $3.3 million club option on Robles after the season, though they quickly re-signed him for $2.65 million. Even so, it was unclear at that point if he’d make it all the way back from that injury that proved far worse than it ever appeared at the time.

Robles, though, completed his rehab early in the offseason, then was able to go play winter ball in the Dominican Republic. That was the sign, for him, that all was well again.

“I took some at-bats down in winter ball, and as I started taking more at-bats and more at-bats, I realized I don’t feel bad at all,” he said. “At the end of it all, when I kept taking at-bats, it felt like nothing had happened.”

Robles still needs to show he can maintain his health as he plays day in and day out. He said he’s been adhering to a strict daily regimen in the training room, taking advice from other players who dealt with similar back injuries.

Now it’s a matter of recapturing the form he displayed in his brief time on the field last season.

Challenged by the Nationals to play a cleaner brand of baseball in center field and on the bases, and to show more patience with two strikes at the plate, Robles rose to the occasion. In 36 games, he batted .299 with a .385 on-base percentage and .750 OPS. He doubled his walk rate from the previous year to 8.7 percent and slashed his strikeout rate to 14.3 percent, well below his career average of 23.2 percent.

Then came the initial back injury in May, leading to his first stint on the injured list. He attempted to come back in June but clearly didn’t look 100 percent and landed back on the IL after only five games. He never returned.

“At first, I was trying to play through it as much as I could,” he said. “I felt good on the field in terms of playing, so I thought maybe I could play through it. And I realized that was not possible. At that moment, I did feel very frustrated. But I also kept faith in God, and I know he’s got a plan for me. I relied on him to get through it, so it’s helped quite a bit.”

Currently the longest-tenured player in the organization (aside from Stephen Strasburg), Robles signed with the Nationals way back in 2013. He’s gone from one of the top-rated prospects in baseball to a quality rookie center fielder on a World Series champion to teetering on the brink of a career collapse in the ensuing years.

And now, as he enters his final season of arbitration-eligibility before he can become a free agent, Robles faces a true make-or-break moment. In the past, the Nats were willing to give him repeated opportunities to live up to his potential. Now, with top outfield prospects Dylan Crews and James Wood knocking on the door and expected to reach the big leagues sometime this year, Robles has to produce if he has any hope of retaining his job.

“You don’t ever have to tell a player that there’s other players coming,” manager Davey Martinez said. “What I want him to do is just go out there and do what he does best, and just play the game. He’s going to do that. … He knows it’s his time to perform. I expect him to go out there and do his job, do all the little things right, get on base for us, and score some runs and steal bases and play Gold Glove defense.”

Even if he does all that, is Robles assured of staying in D.C.? If Crews and/or Wood live up to the hype, there won’t be room for him regardless.

It all makes for a captivating season for Robles, whose baseball future is at stake.

“It feels great to know as an organization we have talent that will help us win at the big league level. I’m very happy about that,” he said. “But I also feel like I’m one of those players who doesn’t just play for the Nationals. I play for the whole league. There’s going to be an opportunity. I know what I can do, and I feel like this is one of those teams where there’s a lot of opportunity no matter what position or where you’re at. I know what I can do. The only competition I have is with myself.”

Nats address rule change in workout; Martinez shar...
Starting pitchers will get plenty of work in first...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.masnsports.com/