Victor Robles’s development has been one of the Nationals’ biggest priorities of the last five years.
The 23-year-old Dominican native was heralded as a future five-tool player while in the minors, soaring up prospect rankings with the promise of being Washington’s everyday centerfielder for the next half-decade. However, despite showing elite defensive prowess in the outfield, Robles has struggled to become an impact hitter while showing a lack of plate discipline opposing pitchers have exploited.
The Nationals held onto Robles for years, despite other clubs reportedly trying to include him in trades for players such as J.T. Realmuto, Kris Bryant and Andrew McCutchen. They opted to forego cashing in on his peak trade value and leaned on him as a future building block of the franchise. Yet instead, it’s been Juan Soto who has emerged as such a player, making Robles a more expendable asset if the Nationals can find good value for him on the trade market.
Now, there’s no writing off Robles just yet. He already displayed in 2019 that he’s capable of playing elite defense in center field, showing off impressive range (+23 Defensive Runs Saved) and a strong arm (12 outfield assists). While he took a step back during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Robles still projects as a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder moving forward.
His problems at the plate are correctable. Pitchers pound the low-and-outside corner of the strike zone and Robles hasn’t been able to lay off of them. He also tends to bite at the high fastball, struggling to make contact on them particularly with two strikes. If Robles can dial back his aggressiveness — 67.2 percent of his plate appearances last season started 0-1 — and cut down on the strikeouts, he still has the tools to be a star in Washington.
“I know he’s trying really hard,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said in September. “Too hard sometimes…I’ve been there before. You start trying to swing your way out of it, sometimes you start chasing way out of the zone and obviously he’s done that quite a bit.”
But the Nationals have a core built to win now. Max Scherzer is a free agent after this season. Trea Turner will hit the open market the year after that. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are only getting older and Soto only more expensive. Though Washington has a few up-and-coming arms in its farm system, overall the minor-league depth is considered one of the worst in the league.
Washington could upgrade its offense — an area GM Mike Rizzo identified as his top priority this winter — by trading Robles for a more established hitter. For example, trade talks between the Nationals and Cincinnati Reds over third baseman Eugenio Suárez reportedly stalled after Rizzo declined to include top pitching prospects Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli in any deal.
Robles might be enticing enough for the Reds, who could put him in center and move Nick Senzel back to his natural position at third. The Nationals would then be able to fill center field with a cheap, glove-first free agent like Kevin Pillar to mitigate the drop-off in defense they would incur by dealing Robles.
The Boston Red Sox have also reportedly made left fielder Andrew Benintendi available. Like Robles, Benintendi is a former top prospect who has had an up-and-down career in the majors. While the metrics show his defense is declining, the Nationals could play Benintendi in center and hit him between Turner and Soto to take advantage of his career .353 on-base percentage and speed on the basepaths. Only Soto has a higher lifetime OBP than Benintendi among Nationals hitters.
There are many ways the Nationals could handle Robles’s future. The most likely path they’ll choose is riding him out to see if he can unlock his potential. It would be hard to fault them for that. Robles is still young enough to be a Double-A prospect.
Yet Robles is not the headline-grabbing, unmarred prospect he was heading into the 2019 season. There’s still some trade value left in him and the Nationals would be well-suited to at least explore options for dealing their young centerfielder. If they hold onto him for too long, the chance to get something out of Robles could pass them by.