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Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

WASHINGTON—Ever since Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals has been who will be replacing him at third base.

That question was seemingly answered Tuesday, when Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins and became the last of the all-star-caliber third basemen in free agency to decide which jersey he’ll be wearing in 2020.

While some combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Carter Kieboom will do well to ensure third base doesn’t become a hole in the lineup, Rendon’s offense won’t be replicated by one single player.

That means the big question isn’t how the Nationals are going to replace Rendon at third base, but how they’ll replace him in the lineup. Juan Soto could continue his ascent from a young star into an MVP-type player, but then who protects him from the cleanup spot?

No, Washington is going to need several hitters to take a step forward if they’re going to replace that lost production. Trea Turner is a logical choice given that he’ll be playing with all 10 fingers instead of nine. Castro altered his swing and saw a significant uptick in his power numbers over the second half of last season. Perhaps Adam Eaton will have a career year as he reaches the end of his prime.

Yet no single improvement would have the potential of impacting the Nationals’ lineup than that of Victor Robles.

The center fielder had a mildly disappointing season at the plate as a rookie, posting just a .745 OPS with 140 strikeouts in 155 games. His defense earned him a spot as a Gold Glove finalist and he stole 28 bases, so his campaign wasn’t a wash by any means. But Robles’ spot in the lineup wasn’t one to be feared by opposing pitchers, and that alone makes his improvement critical to the Nationals’ offense in 2020.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said at the team’s annual WinterFest event last weekend. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles met with the media at WinterFest as well, speaking through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. He said being patient at the plate was the most important facet of his game that he hopes to improve this season. The numbers agree, as FanGraphs reports that he swung at 31.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, about 2 percent above league average.

Changeups in particular were hard for Robles to pick up. Brooks Baseball found that not only was he swinging at changeups more often than any other pitch, he was also whiffing at them 18.8 percent of the time (also his highest rate vs. a single pitch) while only managing to make weak contact even when he did get his bat on the ball.

Robles mentioned that one of his biggest takeaways from last season was recognizing how relaxed his veteran teammates were during their playoff run. It helped him feel more relaxed as well and that’s something he says he expects to continue into this season. That would be important, because a relaxed player would probably be less likely to bite on changeups and wait the extra half-second to recognize the ball is breaking.

By OPS, center field was the Nationals’ second-worst area of production last season ahead of only catcher. And with steady veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes returning behind the dish, the pressure will be on Robles to take a step forward.

He doesn’t turn 23 until May, so there’s still plenty of room for Robles to grow. If he can take his 88 OPS+ (a metric that finds he was 12 percent below league average at the plate last season) and turn himself into a solid offensive contributor, it will go a long way in helping the Nationals move forward without Rendon.

“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”

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Carter Kieboom has a mentor at spring training: veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera

Carter Kieboom has a mentor at spring training: veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera

With Trea Turner at shortstop and Starlin Castro at second base, the Nationals have two reliable veterans at the two positions Carter Kieboom has always played. 

So now, the Nationals' top prospect is competing for the starting third base job with seasoned veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. Once one of the best shortstops in baseball, Cabrera has fallen off defensively and has limited range nowadays, though he was still a key contributor to the Nationals' World Series championship in 2019. 

Instead of viewing Kieboom as just his competition and doing everything he can to win the job, Cabrera has taken on the role of mentor for the 22-year-old infielder.

“(Cabrera) takes ground balls with (Kieboom) every day,” Martinez said, according to MASN's Pete Kerzel. “I’ve asked him, ‘Hey, you need to take ground balls at second, too, and short sometimes.’ Religiously, for the purpose of being with Carter, he stands with Carter, helping him with his throws, making sure he understands that footwork is important when he’s throwing. ... He talks to him all the time about a bunch of different things, how to play positions, not take your at-bats to the field. He’s been unbelievable with him, he really has. It’s been good for Carter.”

Kieboom has struggled with errors through the early days of spring ball, which is to be expected considering he's a young player at a position he's never played regularly on the professional level. While a bunch of errors in February are nothing to get too concerned over, Kieboom will have to cut those down in March if he wants to win the job. 

Cabrera is seen as the backup plan at third if Kieboom can't secure the job during spring training. The 34-year-old is entering his 14th season and would probably be better maximized if he didn't have to play every day. 

If Kieboom isn't ready though, it wouldn't be the best idea for the Nationals to force it. So over the course of the next three weeks, we'll see just how much Cabrera can help the youngster. 

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Jayson Werth explains why he 'always thought' Bryce Harper could end up with Phillies

Jayson Werth explains why he 'always thought' Bryce Harper could end up with Phillies

During Phillies spring training on Friday, Jayson Werth visited his old team and former Nationals teammate Bryce Harper. It just so happened he had arrived on the one-year anniversary of Bryce Harper deciding to leave Washington to sign a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. 

Werth spent six seasons sharing an outfield with Harper but before his days in Washington, he helped the Phillies win the World Series in 2008. His play in Philadelphia earned him a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals in 2011. 

Harper's exit from DC is a sore subject for Nationals fans, even though a World Series championship definitely helped numb the pain. Werth explained in a story by NBC Sports Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury that he always had a hunch Harper could end up in Philly. 

"I always thought this would be a possible destination for him, even way back when, for a bunch of reasons," Werth said. "Kind of where the team was, the money was right, the owner was right, the town's right.

"But more than anything else," Werth added with widening eyes, "Citizens Bank Park is just an awesome place to hit. We always talked about that."

Werth clarified he doesn't want anyone to think he was pushing Harper to Philadelphia, just that as players they naturally had plenty of conversations about other ballparks. And it's hard to argue with that. 

Before he played a single game for the Phillies, Harper was Citizens Bank Park's all-time leader in slugging percentage. In 2019, Harper hit the second-most homers of his career (35) and his second-highest slugging percentage as well.

Werth even enjoyed a nice bump hitting in Philadelphia. During his time with the Nats, Werth his .291 with a .922 OPS to go along with 15 home runs and 45 RBI in 52 trips to Citizens Bank Park. 

Between the 81 games in a hitters ballpark and a $330 million contract without the deferred payments the Nationals reportedly offered to Harper last year, it makes a decent amount of sense he decided to take his talents north. 

But hey, the Nationals won a World Series the following season, and in epic fashion I might add, while there's no guarantee the Phillies get there any time soon. I mean, have you seen their pitching staff outside of Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler?

So Bryce is happy and Nats fans are happy. Everyone wins, right? 

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