When Victor Robles and the Washington Nationals avoided arbitration last winter, agreeing on a 1 year/$2.325M contract for 2023, there was a 2024 club option in the deal, but it was declined by the Nationals on Thursday, as they announced on X/Twitter, noting, however, “... Robles remains under team control and is eligible for salary arbitration this offseason.”
“The outfielder is not a free agent as he has less than six years of service time and the club could decide to tender him an arbitration contract for next year,” as mlbtraderumors.com’s Darragh McDonald explained in an article on the Nats’ decision yesterday.
MLB Trade Rumors is projecting a $2.7M salary for Robles in arbitration this offseason, while the club option for 2024 would have paid the outfielder $3.3M if the Nationals exercised it.
Robles, 26, went 32 for 107 (.299/.385/.365) at the plate this season, but played in just 36 total games, with a back injury leading to an IL stint in early May, before he returned for a time in mid-June, only to end up back on the IL on June 20th. He never returned to play a 37th game, which his manager said was a shame, considering how he’d done early in the year.
“It stinks for him, and for us, because we challenged him to make some changes with his swing,” Davey Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“He did it, and he was doing really, really well,” Martinez added.
“I really wish we could’ve seen that for 550 plate appearances, because I think he would’ve surprised a lot of people. But only time will tell now.”
Robles hit five doubles and a triple, taking 11 walks (six shy of his total in 132 games and 407 PAs overall in 2022), and striking out 18 times in 126 PAs this year, showing signs he’d taken the advice the team was offering to heart after he struggled at the plate following his strong start in the majors in 2017-19, and his run as the everyday center fielder for the World Series championship roster in 2019 (when he had a .255/.326/.419 line, 33 doubles, three triples, 17 home runs, 35 walks, and 140 Ks in 155 games and 617 PAs).
Between 2020-’22, Robles put up a combined .216/.291/.306 line in 291 games and 965 PAs, with a 162-game average of 20 doubles, two triples, and six home runs. He was off to a solid start this past season, but the back issue kept him out of the lineup after June 20th, with the Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo telling reporters he was, however, healthy at the end of the year.
“We think his back is healthy right now,” Rizzo said as quoted by MASN’s Zuckerman. “He’s doing his rehab workouts. He’s going to begin baseball workouts soon. And hopefully he’ll get some time in the winter league and recoup some of the at-bats he missed with all the injuries this year.”
Martinez described the issue as a, “back spasm of the lumbar spine,” when Robles went on the IL for a second time in June. “It stinks because he was actually playing well. He’s hitting the ball, and he’s been hitting the ball all year,” the manager said, but the outfielder made a few questionable plays in center, and looked like he was playing hurt, so the club made the decision to take him off the field again.
“We’re going to be smart about it,” Martinez said. “I know he’s a bit frustrated about it, but we’re going to take care of him and make sure that he’s completely healthy.”
Martinez was asked at the time if the issue had bothered Robles the whole time he was back in the lineup after returning from the initial IL stint.
“No, his response was — because I ask him every day — and his response to me was, ‘At certain times I feel it, but not horrible,” the skipper said. “‘I feel like I can really play.’ So, last time I talked to him he said it is bothering him. And I said, ‘Where are you at?’ And he said, ‘I can feel it, but I only feel it when I run.’ And he said, ‘The hitting doesn’t bother me.’ So I said, ‘Well, Vic, the big part of this game is you play center field you got to run. So I think it’s smart that we IL you and then get you better and go from there.”
Robles went into the season with something to prove, and showed some promising signs, but his back issue limited the outfielder in an important season for the seven-year veteran, but Rizzo said the organization still believes he has something to contribute.
“You’re looking at a player that as a rookie, as a kid, performed terrifically on the big stage,” Rizzo said. “We know who he is. We just need to get him back to that 2019 level.”
Alex Call, 28, played 87 games in center in Robles’s absence, with 24-year-old, 2021 7th Round pick Jacob Young third on the team with 32 games in center field as a rookie for Washington. Lane Thomas played 11 of his 154 games in the outfield in center. The club currently has multiple high-end outfield prospects (Dylan Crews, James Wood, Robert Hassell III + more) making waves in the system and the possibility of one coming up and supplanting someone currently in the big league mix is something Rizzo did talk about towards the end of the 2023 campaign.
“We’ve got players champing at the bit to get to the big leagues and they are going to be on the heels of a lot of these big league players that are currently on the roster,” Rizzo said.
“So that’s what this thing is all about: competition at the highest level.”
What will that mean for Robles going forward? If healthy, will he be the everyday center fielder? Will he get another opportunity to reestablish himself before one of the young outfielders kicks down the door and forces the club’s hand?
Will Robles and the Nationals agree on a deal for less than $3.3M and avoid the possibility of arbitration? Is a non-tender a realistic possibility? Is a potential trade an option, given all the players they have and the prospects that are coming up in the organization?