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Crossroads looms for Victor Robles and his future with the Washington Nationals

Victor Robles has been an enigma for the Nationals since making it to the big leagues, but as the trade deadline approaches, so does a crossroads for his future...

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Enigmatic. That might be the best way to sum up Victor Robles’s major league career with the Washington Nationals.

Coming up through the minor leagues, Robles was hailed as one of the most talented young players in the system, not just for the Nationals, but all of baseball — remember, until right before Juan Soto was called up, Robles was continually thought of more highly.

Because of how highly rated he was, his name kept popping up in trade rumors every time the Nationals were linked with a player. JT Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale, the list went on.

General Manager Mike Rizzo and the rest of the front office kept saying no though. The outfielder was deemed untouchable and considered a big part of the franchise’s future in the outfield.

And in Robles’s first taste of big-league action, he started to live up to that billing. he had short stints in the majors in 2017 and 2018, then got his first full season with the major league team in 2019 as the team went on to win the World Series, with Robles a big part of that.

Through those first three years, Robles slashed .258/.327/.431 with a 96 wRC+ while hitting 20 home runs, scoring 96 runs, and swiping 31 bases. The offensive production was solid, if not spectacular. What was spectacular, however, was his defense, which made him a Gold Glove finalist in 2019, and balanced out the bat looking like it was still developing.

Yes, there were some mistakes in the field and on the bases, but at that point, it was forgivable as a rookie playing with exuberance to try and make things happen.

Fast forward just over two years and, well, the only way Robles has gone is backward.

Since the Nationals hoisted the World Series, the still-young outfielder has a slash line of just .215/.303/.303 and a wRC+ of 68. In 35 more plate appearances than before the World Series, Robles has hit 14 fewer home runs, stole 13 fewer bases, and more than halved his power output from a .173 ISO at the end of 2019 to a .088 ISO since then.

While his offensive production evaporates, Robles continues to make, at times, head-scratching decisions on the bases and in center field. It was forgivable a few years ago, but now, it’s just frustrating, especially with a manager who laments getting the little things wrong.

Almost five years on from his first call up to the major leagues and the Nationals still don’t know for certain whether Robles should be a part of their long-term future in center field, and with every passing day this season, the pressure mounts on the front office to find the answer.

With another losing season pretty much a certainly this year, a trade deadline sell-off should follow again this summer, and the Nationals GM confirmed as much on his weekly radio spot.

“We still have a long way to figure that out,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies earlier this month.

“I would assume that if we’re playing at the rate we’re playing, we’ll probably be careful sellers, and make sure that we maximize the players at least with expiring contracts.”

So, it’s safe to expect that the Nats will trade the likes of Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz, Steven Cishek, and César Hernández if there are teams out there willing to part with prospects for them.

Robles, however, has two more years of contractual control remaining before he can become a free agent. Trading him away wouldn't just be about this year, it would essentially signal that the Nationals are skeptical about whether he can ever turn it around in the majors.

As the Nats showed last year when they traded away Trea Turner, they might primarily be selling players who are out of contract at the end of the year, but they aren’t opposed to trading away players with control for the right deal — even if Robles fetches way less than Turner.

The New York Post’s Joel Sherman could see a fit for Robles with the Yankees, who lack a true center fielder, with Aaron Judge currently manning the position most nights...

“Should the Yankees try for something like... Washington’s righty-swinging Victor Robles to start against lefties plus defend in center late with a lead?”

There’s definitely some appeal for contending teams to add a player such as Robles who at the very least will be able to play center field to a high level and add speed on the bases, especially in the postseason when teams try to extract every advantage possible, even if the question marks around his bat mount.

The return won’t be close to the standard of player that was when he was a prospect on the verge of breaking through to the majors. But at some point, if the front office thinks the chances of him fulfilling his potential are low, they may be wise to cut their losses.

And therein lies the decision. Is what the Nationals could realistically get back in a trade for Robles worth potentially selling low on a player who might have the greatest raw talent on their roster? Or do they keep riding it out and hope for a turnaround that may never come?

The answer will become clear soon as the trade deadline approaches and suitors for a player like Robles reveal themselves. If there are any willing to give up much for him, that is.

Until then, the Nationals don’t have a lot to lose by giving Robles as many opportunities as possible to see what they have in the young center fielder, but time may be running out...