Emerging as an everyday player in 2019, Victor Robles hit .255/.326/.419 with 17 homers over 617 plate appearances for the Nationals — below-average (92 wRC+, 91 OPS+) by a league-wide standard but quite respectable for a player in his age-22 season. Robles also stole 28 bases in 37 chances, and was exceptional over 1199 innings in center field, posting +23 Defensive Runs Saved, +22 Outs Above Average, and +6.1 UZR/150.
Since Robles was a key figure in the Nats’ World Series triumph, his place in Washington baseball history is in some ways already secured. However, with two lackluster seasons since that seeming breakout year, the jury is still out on whether or not Robles is still a cornerstone piece for the Nationals in the future.
In a sense, the Nationals’ larger struggles give Robles some extra leeway. After consecutive last-place finishes and a trade deadline fire sale of many of their veterans, it isn’t yet clear if the Nationals are planning to return to contention in 2022, or if the club will take another year to reload. Washington didn’t do much in the way of big transactions pre-lockout, and much of the team’s winter focus has been on making new staffing hires on the coaching and player development fronts throughout the organization.
Even if 2022 is more of an evaluation year in the District, there’s still natural pressure on Robles to perform. His lack of production in 2020-21 meant that he is projected for a modest $1.7MM in 2022, his first season of arbitration eligibility. If Robles again doesn’t hit next year but continues to play good defense, the Nationals probably wouldn’t be moved to non-tender him since he’d still have a pretty inexpensive price tag, even for a fourth outfielder type. (Caveat: it is possible the arbitration process could be altered in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.)
Becoming “only” a fourth outfielder would have to count as a bit of a disappointment for a player with Robles’ prospect pedigree. It wasn’t long ago that Robles was a consensus pick as one of baseball’s best minor leaguers, as scouts and evaluators thought even more highly of Robles than they did Juan Soto when the two were coming up in Washington’s farm system.
However, the hitting potential that Robles displayed in the minors and in the 2018-19 seasons seemed to vanish over the last two big league seasons. Since the start of the 2020 campaign, Robles has hit .209/.304/.302 with five homers over 558 PA, translating to a measly 67 wRC+ and 68 OPS+. The biggest issue has been a lack of hard contact, as Robles has some of the worst hard-hit ball numbers of any player in baseball over the last three seasons. Robles also has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, though his walk rate did improve to a slightly above-average 8.9% in 2021.
Even beyond the struggles at the plate, Robles has 12 steals in 21 chances in 2020-21, and he was a below-average runner in general according to Fangraphs’ baserunning metric. Even the glovework has been in decline, as over his last 1215 innings in center field, Robles has a -4 DRS, and -3.3 UZR/150, though his OAA total is still +3.
Robles’ decision to add 15 pounds in the 2019-20 offseason may have contributed to all of these problems, as his attempt to help boost his power had a deleterious effect on basically every aspect of his game. Robles cut that weight prior to last year’s Spring Training, yet the difficulties continued over the 2021 season. The Nationals even took the step of demoting Robles to Triple-A for the final month of the season, though since Robles did post a .936 OPS over his 93 PA with Rochester, there is hope that his return trip to the minors might have helped him regain some confidence.
Heading into 2022, Robles still ostensibly Washington’s top option in center field, though Lane Thomas now looms as a possible replacement. Acquired from the Cardinals in the Jon Lester trade, Thomas broke out to hit .270/.364/.489 over 206 PA with the Nats, and positioned himself for an everyday role in the D.C. outfield. Thomas is likely a better defensive fit as a left fielder than as a center fielder, but he is at least good enough up the middle to take over the position if Robles is unable to get on track.
Andrew Stevenson, Yadiel Hernandez and minor league signing Rusney Castillo are also in the mix to vie for outfield playing time, plus Robles’ immediate future may also be impacted by whatever the Nationals have planned for their post-lockout moves. Even if the Nats aren’t planning to contend, that doesn’t mean they might not add a veteran or two on one-year contracts, with an eye towards potentially flipping those veterans at the trade deadline.
It also worth stressing that Robles doesn’t even turn 25 years old until May, so it’s possible his prime years may still be well ahead of him. If the Nationals’ step back meant they didn’t have to a tough decision on Robles this winter, however, that decision may get a little tougher if Robles still hasn’t shown any improvement during the 2022 season. If Robles can at least approach his 2019 form, that will provide at least one answer for the Nationals within this period of uncertainty for the franchise.