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Victor Robles makes perfect sense as the Washington Nationals’ next fourth outfielder

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While the five-tool prospect may have a high ceiling, playing behind the Nats’ starting outfielders could go a long way in Victor Robles’ development.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals made the surprising move to call up top prospect Victor Robles in September, giving him a taste of the majors after an impressive season at Class-A Potomac and AA-Harrisburg. Despite only playing in 13 games, Robles’ raw talent was enough to convince the Nats to add him to their postseason roster for the NLDS.

Robles recorded 27 plate appearances in September, hitting .250/.308/.458 with a double, two triples, four RBIs and six strikeouts. He was 0 for 1 in stolen base attempts but showcased his speed in the outfield with several highlight reel plays.

“You’ve got to like what you see,” former manager Dusty Baker said in September. “You see why everybody wanted to trade for him, and you see why we didn’t give him up and include him in any of those trades.”

While Robles didn’t play much in the NLDS, there might be an opportunity to play more next season. Jayson Werth will likely depart via free agency, opening up conversation for how the team will organize its outfield before Opening Day. Adam Eaton will be returning from injury and Michael Taylor certainly opened some eyes with his impressive 2017 campaign, but the fourth outfielder role has proven to be an important one for the Nats over the past few years.

Taylor has handled that job each of the past three years, roaming the outfield while starters Adam Eaton, Ben Revere and Denard Span worked their way back from injuries. Nate McLouth was signed to fill that role in 2014 when he agreed on a two-year, $10.75 million deal with Washington. While injuries derailed McLouth’s career, the Nats made it known that they value having at least four quality outfielders on the roster.

Robles will enter the 2018 campaign with his rookie status still intact. If he can get any regular playing time, he’ll be right in the thick of the NL Rookie of the Year race.

A case can certainly be made for Robles to start next year in the minors in order to get regular at-bats, but playing time hasn’t been hard to come by for Nats backup outfielders in recent years. Taylor played 118 games this year and 138 in 2015, while Roger Bernadina appeared in 129 contests in 2012 and 85 in 2013 before being released in August of that year.

Assuming Brian Goodwin returns as well, the Nats should have five outfielders on their roster. Taylor, Eaton and Bryce Harper all spent time on the disabled list this past year. That should be incentive enough for the Nats not to trade any of them and keep Robles and Goodwin around as backups.

Trading any of those starters — most notably Taylor — could prove to be a big mistake for Washington. Robles certainly showed flashes of his tools, but his future in the majors is far from determined. It would be foolish for the Nats to bet on the small sample size and hand him the keys to a starting job right off the bat.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“Sometimes we make the mistake, all we see is hit, run, throw, and catch,” Baker said. “We haven’t been in a position to see how he reacts on his feet, you know what I mean, so the thing that sticks out the most I guess, is that he’s not — he doesn’t seem fazed by most of it, and he stays off the tough pitches, usually young players chase the breaking ball.”

Eaton was one of the most underrated players in baseball before he went down with his leg injury in April. Taylor finally had the breakout season the Nats have been waiting for and was probably the best hitter on the team during the NLDS. Harper... well, he’s Bryce Harper. Robles isn’t going to beat any of them out for a starting job, nor should he.

The Dominican native doesn’t project to be a bench player for his entire career, but it would serve him well to play as the fourth outfielder heading into next season. Playing behind the likes of veterans Harper and Eaton could go a long way to assisting his development. It might not guarantee him a season’s worth of at-bats, but it will give Washington a glimpse of whether or not he could handle everyday duties in the event Harper departs via free agency.