“I’ve said this before, and I mean this with all my heart: We want Victor to be successful up here,” an emotional manager said Tuesday night on Zoom when asked about Robles’ demotion to Triple-A. “He’s still young, he’s (24) years old, he’s got a bright future here with us. ... I mean, I know this is not the last we’re going to see of Victor.”
That’s of course what any manager, but especially one who cares as much about his players as Martinez does, would say under the circumstances. When you send an underperforming player to the minors, you say in no uncertain terms you expect them to return as soon as they figure things out.
But let’s look at this situation rationally. Can we really say with any degree of certainty Robles will play for the Nationals again? Or, if he does, that he’ll be their everyday center fielder?
Tuesday’s news makes that scenario harder to envision. The Nats didn’t just option Robles to Rochester. They optioned him to Rochester on the day before rosters expand, with a team that just completed a 7-20 August after an 8-18 July and is in full-scale rebuild mode. A team playing with zero pressure right now.
In short, it’s the perfect opportunity for struggling young players to gain experience and figure out how to be more successful in the big leagues. The precise kind of situation that should be perfect for Robles.
Which is why Robles’ demotion resonated so much. If the Nationals didn’t think the situation here was right for him, what makes the situation in Rochester any better for his long-term prospects?
“We explained to him if it takes a month, two weeks, whatever, so be it,” Martinez said. “But we want him to go down there and we want to see progress. We want to see him play the game that we know he can play. Defensively, baserunning, the hitting portion, taking his walks, all that stuff.”
All the stuff the Nats have been telling Robles he needs to do at the big league level for two years now but has yet to see from him on a consistent basis.
The numbers are telling. Robles has now played 159 games over the last two seasons, during which time he has hit .209 with five homers, 34 RBIs, 42 walks, a .304 on-base percentage, a .302 slugging percentage, only 12 stolen bases in 19 attempts and a .606 OPS.
Those numbers suggest he should’ve been sent down months ago. Thing is, the Nationals never had a real viable alternative to him until now.
Lane Thomas wasn’t acquired from the Cardinals one month ago to be the franchise’s starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. General manager Mike Rizzo made the deal because the thought of getting even a borderline backup outfielder for two months of Jon Lester was far too enticing to pass up.
Now, though, Thomas has played well enough - a .304/.407/.457 slash line in 14 games - to merit regular playing time, which, in turn, bumped Robles out of a job. Not bad for a guy who was just hanging on at Triple-A Memphis a month ago.
“I think when you look at it like that - that’s the first time I’ve heard it said - that is kind of a crazy turn of events,” Thomas said. “But at the end of the day, I always knew I could play. It’s just getting the opportunity and running with it. Obviously I’m going to get to play a little bit more. I just need to keep grinding it out every day and take good at-bats and just try to win games.”
Is Thomas the long-term answer in center field? Who knows? Common sense says he’s not going to be able to sustain anything close to what he’s done so far. But until the numbers do cool off, how can the Nationals decline the opportunity to keep playing him?
“You know, I heard a lot about Lane from some St. Louis guys, and I’m starting to realize that he’s potentially a really, really good baseball player,” Martinez said. “He understands the game well. So he’s just getting an opportunity right now to play.”
Which leaves Robles where exactly? Will he play all of September in Rochester, or will he return before season’s end? Will he report to spring training with a shot to win back his starting job, or are his days in the organization numbered now?
In short, is the Victor Robles who was the starting center fielder of the World Series champions only two years ago gone forever? Or is he still in there somewhere, just needing to figure out what’s gone wrong and recapture his lost form?
“We’ve been together for three years now - almost four years, really,” Martinez said. “It was tough for me. It was tough for him. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, as he does for me. We talked and I told him: ‘You’re going to play here again. You’re going to play for me again. You’re going to play for the Nationals again. Just go down there and continue to work and take everything that you have been working on and apply it to the games down there.’ “
It sounds easy enough. But at this point with Robles, nothing is easy.