Victor Robles became the forgotten man for the Washington Nationals on the road to their 2019 World Series championship. That won’t be the case in 2020, as the 22-year-old is the key to the Nationals going on another deep playoff run.
In his first full season at the big-league level, Robles impressed, especially in the field.
He served as the Nationals outfield commander and finished first among center fielders in assists (12) and third in DRS (24). Robles is a speeding bullet, which allows him to get behind virtually any fly ball in his vicinity. This aspect of his game bodes well moving forward, as does his power.
Hitting .255 while totaling 17 home runs and 65 RBIs, he was a sneaky source of offense near the bottom of the Nationals order. He also swiped 28 bags. The combination of power and speed is tantalizing. With that said, Robles has to garner more plate discipline.
Last season he posted a 140:139 strikeout-to-hit ratio and struggled to work the count. Albeit most young hitters log strikeouts at a high rate, the center fielder may be in store for a new role that requires a different plate approach.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez has been public about the prospect of hitting Robles leadoff next season. If that possibility becomes a reality, it entails Robles getting on base and working the count more. His job would be setting the table for the hitters that follow, which, in all likelihood, would be Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto.
Robles’ .745 OPS was respectable, but it won’t cut it for a leadoff hitter. Last season he mostly hit near the bottom of the order, meaning he typically wasn’t put in positions to drive in runs; he was mostly creating offense on his own. That’s not to say he can’t swing for power, rather he can’t be a mere power threat; Martinez will need Robles to be the spark plug that gets the ball rolling.
This lineup alteration comes in the wake of losing 2019 National League Most Valuable Player Award finalist Anthony Rendon to free agency. While they did a plausible job filling holes around the diamond (they re-signed Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and Asdrubal Cabrera while adding Starlin Castro and Eric Thames), one could argue that the Nationals don’t have an obvious three hitter.
As currently constructed, Turner, their leadoff hitter for the better part of the last four seasons, is the safe bet to hit third, as he’s a well-rounded hitter with speed. The modern-day leadoff hitter gets on base but also has power and wreaks havoc on the basepaths. That leads Martinez to go with Robles. Now it’s a matter of whether he can grow into the job description.
Robles has the potential to be an All-Star and form the best outfield duo in baseball with Soto. The irony is that had Robles not suffered an elbow injury early in the 2018 Triple-A season, he, not Soto, would’ve gotten the call up to the big leagues. Robles was the Nationals top prospect for a large portion of the previous decade, though, Soto wasn’t far behind. Now the two are sharing the same outfield at the big-league level, and the sky is the limit.
Washington’s MO is starting pitching. With the likes of three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez in place, they sport the best starting rotation in Major League Baseball.
They’re accompanied by an improved bullpen, as the Nationals re-signed Daniel Hudson, brought in Will Harris and Ryne Harper, and are getting back a healthy Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias, who they acquired before last season’s MLB trade deadline.
This rotation potency theoretically gives their offense the leeway to be in the middle of the pack, so to speak. At the same time, while they sport an obvious advantage the first two times the opposing team hits and they improved their Achilles heel this offseason (their bullpen), the Nationals need their offense to remain an electric force to contend.
For starters, they play in a stiff NL East that includes the Atlanta Braves, who have won the division in each of the last two seasons, New York Mets, who won 86 games last season, and Philadelphia Phillies, who are a competitive foe. Washington is the team to beat, but to outlast their divisional foes in October, they’ll need internal growth.
Soto will be an MVP contender; Turner will wreak havoc with his legs; Eaton is a crafty hitter and a smart baserunner; Cabrera slaps pitches to all fields from both sides of the plate; Castro is a steady hitter; Thames provides pop. Case in point: the Nationals will have a functioning offense next season. You know what you’re getting from the bulk of this roster.
No one can fill the void Rendon’s departure creates in their lineup. All Washington can hope for is to get an uptick in production from other positions, and that starts with their young center fielder.
He can only improve, but how much Victor Robles does so will be pivotal to the Nationals’ chances of repeating in 2020.