Is there one more shot for Robles or will Nats move on?

PLAYER REVIEW: VICTOR ROBLES

Age on opening day 2022: 24

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, July 2013

MLB service time: 3 years, 32 days

2021 salary: $614,000

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2025

2021 stats: 107 G, 369 PA, 315 AB, 37 R, 64 H, 21 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 19 RBI, 8 SB, 6 CS, 33 BB, 85 SO, .203 AVG, .310 OBP, .295 SLG, .605 OPS, 69 OPS+, minus-1 DRS, minus-0.5 fWAR, minus-0.3 bWAR

Quotable: “I’ve said this before, and I mean this with all my heart: We want Victor to be successful up here. 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.” - manager Davey Martinez

Victor Robles running white sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: Despite a disappointing 2020, hopes were high for Victor Robles heading into this season. He came to spring training having dropped some weight, which figured to make a positive difference in the field and on the bases. He was groomed to be the Nationals’ leadoff hitter, batting in front of Trea Turner and Juan Soto. Things appeared to be trending upward when camp ended.

And then one week into the season, Martinez gave up on Robles as a leadoff hitter, bumping him down to the No. 8 (and sometimes No. 9) spot in his lineup. His batting average never topped .250 and eventually just kept dropping toward (and even below) the Mendoza line. He got on base at a decent clip, with an 8.9 percent walk rate that was far and away a career-high and even better than league-average. And his 23 percent strikeout rate wasn’t subpar, not by today’s standards.

But Robles simply couldn’t hit the ball with any authority. His .092 isolated power (basically, a player’s slugging percentage when you remove singles from the mix) was among the worst in the majors. His swings resulted in weak contact 16.6 percent of the time (league average is 3.7 percent). And he rarely hit the ball to center or right fields, pulling it to left field a whopping 48.1 percent of the time.

Though his defense did return to a level approaching 2019, when he was a Gold Glove Award finalist, Robles remained a poor baserunner. He was successful on only 57 percent of his stolen base attempts. He took an extra base only 24 percent of the time it was possible (more than 20 points below his career average).

And it all came to a head Aug. 31, when the Nationals optioned Robles to Triple-A, giving the center field job to Lane Thomas. Robles did well with Rochester, hitting .301/.370/.566 in 23 games in September. But he didn’t earn a call back up to the majors, and thus went home for the offseason with his standing in the organization having suffered a massive drop-off.

2022 outlook: Publicly, the Nationals are saying Robles remains a big part of their future. Does that match the reality of the situation?

Thomas’ performance over the season’s final six weeks earned him the right to enter spring training with a starting job and the leadoff spot in the order all but assured to him. It’s possible he could slide over to left field, opening up center field for Robles. But it’s also possible the club will go out and acquire a more potent hitter to play left field, leaving Thomas in center and leaving Robles on the outside looking in.

It doesn’t seem likely the Nationals would keep Robles on the roster as a backup outfielder, not with Andrew Stevenson and Yadiel Hernandez still under club control as well. So he either needs to make the team as the starting center fielder or else he’s heading back to Rochester to begin the 2022 season. Or worse, heading somewhere else entirely. (Two potential options: The Nats could non-tender Robles this winter, making him a free agent. Or they could bring him to spring training and then if there isn’t a job for him, release him in mid-March and be responsible for only a fraction of his salary.)

At this point, Robles’ best hope is to prove to club officials his September in Triple-A was fruitful and that he can apply what he did there to the major league level. Assuming he’s back in West Palm Beach come February, there’s going to be a major spotlight on him, and little margin for error. Perhaps there’s still one more shot for him to realize his potential in D.C. But there’s little reason to believe the Nationals will give him more than one more shot.

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