Victor Robles, the Washington Nationals’ top prospect, the second-best in baseball according to MLBPipeline.com, and the eighth according to Baseball America, is in an odd, odd, odd situation.
The story up to today:
At the beginning of September, the prevailing logic was as follows: Robles would get September off, go play in the Arizona Fall League, and then get his first Major League exposure when he got an invite to big-league camp in the spring.
But the Nats decided to divert from what appeared to be the plan — a few times, actually, starting on September 7th, when they called Robles up directly from Double-A for the end of the season/to be insurance in case Bryce Harper’s knee (remember when that was a thing?) wasn’t ready for October.
Source: Top prospect Victor Robles is joining the Washington Nationals today. Outfielder with huge tools and knack to get on base. Only 20.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 7, 2017
DEAR GOD https://t.co/yYX39OlIcL— The Prospect Hugger (@AndrewFlaxTNB) September 7, 2017
IT'S DEFCON 1, TO BATTLE STATIONS— The Prospect Hugger (@AndrewFlaxTNB) September 7, 2017
And that would be that, right? Robles would get ten or fifteen at-bats, an occasional Sunday start, and a little exposure to the majors, as well as to the sun monster of Nationals Park before spending next season in Syracuse, getting ready to become a starter in 2019. Just a cup of coffee.
And yes, Bryce Harper did heal — but then Brian Goodwin’s health came into question, and one thing led to another, and suddenly, an October of horror movies and working out turned into a playoff roster appearance for the Nats’ prized prospect.
Victor Robles will be on the Nationals' NLDS roster, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.— Jorge Castillo (@jorgecastillo) October 5, 2017
Though he didn’t start a game, the Dominican saw action in the NLDS, getting an at-bat, and pinch-running for Adam Lind in Game 2, where he scored on Bryce Harper’s two-run moonshot.
So, with Robles in Washington, the Nationals sent Daniel Johnson to the Arizona Fall League in the center fielder’s place. The seemingly prevailing logic after that would be to give Robles the winter off, and then have him come back fresh and ready for Spring Training.
Or send him to the Arizona Fall League anyways, where he’ll have a clear leg up having seen Major League pitching already.
Like, AFL Fall-Star Game MVP leg up.
ICYMI: Last night Victor Robles won the Fall Stars Game MVP Award!— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) November 5, 2017
: https://t.co/68Tcd6ySZO pic.twitter.com/2xaMYW3kug
What’s next for Robles?
It’s hard to know what GM Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez will decide is best for the young phenom. If Robles hadn’t played in October, the logic would’ve most likely been to give him a Major-League Spring Training invite and then have him start the season in Syracuse.
However, after the playoff run, it seemed like the Nats were giving him a shot to make the 25-man roster on Opening Day — Federal Baseball’s Matt Weyrich made the case for Robles as a fourth outfielder recently.
Then again, one typically doesn’t send a player that they think is ready for Major-League action to the Arizona Fall League.
What would likely make the most sense for the young speedster would be starting next season in Triple-A Syracuse, and spending April polishing up his defense and working on, as most young players typically have to, his strikeout rate.
From there, he can be the first option if and when someone goes down. If someone doesn’t go down, then he gets more time to season his game before inevitably cracking the lineup by mid-summer.
The case of the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts should also provide a cautionary tale — after Boston called him up in late August, Bogaerts made a long playoff run with the Sox en route to an eventual World Series, hitting well enough to earn the starting shortstop’s job the next season.
However, despite a nice three-week stretch in October, the league soon figured him out. In other words, limited success over a short stint typically doesn’t mean a player is a finished product ready enough for action over a full season in the Majors — Bogaerts would’ve benefited from some time at Triple-A Pawtucket.
It is possible that Robles could start next season on the 25-man roster, given how well he played in September, with two doubles and a triple in just 24 at-bats.
Nonetheless, Michael A. Taylor’s strong regular season and October should have firmly locked him into the starting center-fielder’s job — it’s his to lose at this point. Moreover, Brian Goodwin is the de-facto backup outfielder heading into next year.
So, the Nats could do two things with Victor in the major leagues: They could put him on the major-league bench and limit his at-bats, likely slowing his development compared to what playing every day in Triple-A would do for his skills. Or, they could throw caution to the wind, and put the center fielder’s job up for grabs.
If Robles was to earn the job ahead of both Goodwin and Taylor — which is quite possible, given how impressive he can be over a short stint (as we’ve already seen) — he could potentially be useful, maybe even light the league ablaze for a month.
But sooner or later, veteran pitchers figure out young, unseasoned rookies — and Robles, despite being a top prospect, is no exception.
His confidence could be shattered. Taylor and Goodwin would feel incredibly disrespected. Both are not good outcomes. Essentially, the Nats have nothing to gain and everything to lose by starting Robles, and nothing to gain from putting him on the bench either.
Of course, the 20-year old could end up in the majors some other way — one or two outfielders could get injured in Spring Training or on Opening Day, and Robles would be in line to get the job.
Suddenly, he could be forced to be a step ahead of the rest of the league — but for everyone’s sake, Rizzo should be hoping that he gets to avoid that treacherous (albeit interesting) situation.