Here’s a dose of positivity for Victor Robles: He’s hitting .316 for Águilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican Republic’s winter league. He’s walked three times and struck out three times. His OPS is a hearty .908 in the six games he’s played.
Tiny sample size? Sure. Lower competition? Of course. Something to glom onto after a debacle of a year in 2020? Why not?
Robles was one of the worst regulars in Major League Baseball in 2020. That’s a sentence no one expected to type or read, yet it’s true. Among the 142 players to qualify for leaderboards, Robles was 139th by fWAR. He couldn’t hit and his fielding took a bizarre negative turn. Robles showed up at Nationals Park bulkier than past years and lost at the plate. Neither served him well.
His prior offensive work at the major-league level suggested such a crash was possible since he’s not a disciplined hitter -- he now has 211 career strikeouts and 48 walks. Robles swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone in 2020 than he did in 2019. His contact rate dipped. In all, he basically muted himself at the plate. His on-base percentage of .293 was aided by being hit nine times. Remove the times he was drilled -- as he often is -- and that number drops to a grotesque .257.
So, when the Nationals look at their offseason moves to come, how to assess Robles?
He won’t be traded. Not after one bad year, and the bad year being 2020. He’s too inexpensive and potential-laden. Mike Cameron always seemed to be a good comparison for Robles: elite center field defense, some power, lots of strikeouts, a fair amount of stolen bases. Cameron hit 278 home runs in his 17-year career, averaging 23 in a 162-game season. If Robles evolved into a 20-20 player with a .250 average and Gold Glove defense, the Nationals would be well-served. Presumably, that is what they anticipate from him moving forward until he can become a free agent in 2025, the same year as Juan Soto.
Anticipate phrasing along this line in the spring: “We expect Victor to bounce back, almost like we got a new player in the offseason.” Either Davey Martinez, Mike Rizzo or both are likely to put forth that type of thought. And Robles played so poorly in 2020, it’s a valid argument as opposed to a generalized trope.
If he returns to the 2019 level -- when he finished with 2.5 fWAR -- Robles does indeed become an internal leap. Only two Nationals players could take a massive production swing from 2020 to 2021: Robles and Carter Kieboom. The reason is both have nowhere to go but up.
Martinez outlined an offseason program for Robles to slim down, regain his speed and even subtract muscle. Martinez argued Robles was already plenty strong to produce high returns. What he wants is the fleet, athletic parts of his game to come back. Internally, the Nationals measure first-step speed on defense, and Robles’ was down considerably in 2020.
So he becomes just another piece of the hunt for a return to normalcy in 2021. Major League Baseball hopes spring training can run as expected, that Opening Day arrives April 1 with fans (to some extent) and the careening of 2020 is over. The Nationals want Robles to be what they saw in 2019, when everything about their -- and his -- baseball existence was in a better place.