Victor Robles is one of those players that frustrates me as a fan, not because he plays poorly, but because I know he's capable of better. After positive early returns in the Grapefruit League, I must ask a question that I've asked myself many times before: Is Victor Robles finally ready to live up to expectations?
After showing tremendous promise as a potential five-tool prospect and an outstanding rookie campaign in 2019 in which the dynamic defender slashed .255/.326./419, Robles' offensive performance declined significantly. Things got so bad for Victor Robles that he was even sent down to AAA Rochester for a large portion of the 2021 season in hopes that the experience could help him return to form.
Robles' struggle has mirrored that of the Nationals franchise as he's struggled to recapture his 2019 magic. His hitting has been the bulk of the problem, but a lot of his shortcomings are attatched to the areas in which he is supposed to excel. For example, despite his obvious defensive talent, Robles is known to errors of judgement in the outfield. He'll lay out for the ESPN-caliber catch, only to let the ball go past him, letting a double turn into a triple because he chooses to attempt impossible outs rather than making the conservative play to contain opposing baserunners.
Robles makes similar mistakes on the basepaths. He'll get thrown out trying to go for the extra base, overestimating his considerable speed. For a guy who struggles to get on base, it seems like he tends to waste a lot of his chances by being too aggressive on the bases.
It's easy to think of Victor Robles as a veteran player who ought to be capable of making better reads by now, but even though he made his first MLB appearance in 2017, the elastic centerfielder is on the younger side at 26 years old. All young players get growing pains, perhaps Robles' pains just lasted a bit longer than his peers, and he'll spend 2023 as the top-tier centerfielder he had been advertised as as a prospect.
Normally I would be expressing a much less optimistic outlook on Victor Robles' future as a Washington National. After all, his 2021 ended at the Mendoza Line and his 2022 didn't finish much better. However, his numbers five games into Spring Training haven't been so easy to ignore. In just 13 at-bats, Robles has three doubles and three RBIs, adding up to a .308 batting average and a .846 OPS.
Before I get carried away, I should note that this is a remarkably small sample size from a league in which pitching is never guaranteed to be competitive. But what if this electric first week of Spring is a sign of better things, the spark Robles needs to kick off a great season? What if Robles has finally matured and developed into a well-rounded major league mainstay?
The truth is, it is far too early to tell. But I'll be keeping a close eye on Robles for the next few weeks to see if this change for the better is just a lucky streak, or a true turning point in the Ballad of Victor Robles.
Even if Robles's hitting does begin to pick up, his path to being the Nationals' long-haul centerfielder again might not be so easy. Fellow outfielder Alex Call has done ever so slightly better than Robles so far in Spring Training, racking up five hits (four of them doubles) on 14 at-bats, with three RBIs (just like Robles). While the Nationals' 2023 outfield will almost certainly include some combination of Call, Robles and others, it is possible that Robles could be passed up often for playing time because of the team's other options, as well as the nature of his contract.
Whereas Alex Call, Lane Thomas, and Joey Meneses are all under club control for many years to come (none will be a free agent before 2026), Victor Robles faces a club option at the end of this season and is not likely to be with the Nationals beyond 2024 when he reaches free agency. In addition to being under lengthy club control, the Nats' other outfielders all performed very well at the end of 2022 (or at least thus far in Spring Training, in Alex Call's case). Who will manager Davey Martinez be more encouraged to play in a lost 2022 season: young players with future promise who will be with the team long-term, or the guy who's on his way out the door who found it too late?
The way I see it, the best outcome for the Nationals vis-a-vis Victor Robles is one in which he hits well in the coming month and makes few defensive mistakes so that he can offer high value at the 2023 trade deadline. No matter what happens, I'm looking forward to seeing Robles show more spectacular glove work in 2023. Hopefully he'll show us some decent hitting to go along with it.