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Waiting for Victor Robles | FanGraphs Baseball

Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

It's the double-R that makes it hard. In the name of Victor Robles, all emphasis is front-loaded. The Conqueror is spondaic again Robles trochaic, meaning that three stressed syllables in a line are followed by that last unstressed syllable: VIC-TOR RO-bles. Shouting followed by whispering, which doesn't quite finish the language. But even if you cheat a little and turn the first word into a trochee – VIC-tor RO-blessing-song like Mickey Mantle or Dr. Pepper – you still can't make it flow because you need to pause between those two R's, lest the two words be pressed together into a mass of breathless words: victorrobles. No matter what you try, that emphatic start stops.

After more than 10 years and many false starts, the middle infielder's time with the Washington Nationals has come to a complete standstill. The team designated Robles to work on Monday, eight days after his 27th birthday. Now they have a week to trade him, let them go, release him or release him. Robles, who is in his eighth season as a big leaguer, likely would have preferred to be offered free agency instead of receiving an outright assignment in the minors. Despite his difficulties, it seems that he will get another chance. For Washington fans who have dreamed about him since 2015, Robles often seemed the closest to the finish line. During his career, Robles has a combined .725 OPS over his first 10 games of the season and a combined .576 OPS over his last 10. He has a career 93 wRC+ in March and April; May is the only month in which it is within 10 points of that point. Many of those hot starts were also marred by early-season injuries: a sprained elbow in April 2018, a sprained ankle in May 2021, back spasms in May 2023, a strained hamstring this April. He just couldn't find a way to continue.

Robles got off to a hot start, posting an .891 OPS as a 17-year-old in the 2014 Dominican Summer League after signing for $225,000 in 2013. about 7 polished tools.” Robles first appeared in these pages in January 2015, when Kiley McDaniel said that those tools and improved approach at the plate could allow him to record prospect rankings in Washington. He did just that, ranking third on the team's list in 2016, then starting in 2017 and 2018, peaking at fourth overall that year. There was a time when it made sense to wonder if you'd rather build a franchise around Robles or Ronald Acuña Jr. The graph below is from September of 2017, when the average projection from KATOH+ had Robles at 12.5 WAR over his first six years. :

It should have been Robles, not Juan Soto, leading the next generation of Nationals stars, but after a cup of coffee in 2017, things came to a head in April 2018. That's when Robles stretched his elbow and Soto found out. he was called up to Washington, never to sniff the minor leagues (or second base) again. Robles got another cup of coffee in September, then spent the rest of 2019 with the big club, putting up 3.7 WAR and finishing sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Until then, Robles was worth 4.3 WAR in 189 big league games, putting up a 96 wRC+ that seemed to promise a bright future. It looked like the one question in all those glowing scouting reports — whether he could use some power — was finally answered. After hitting 10 homers in a season just once in the minors, he delivered 17 as a 22-year-old in 2019. His defense was as good as advertised; His 21 OAA was fourth best in baseball, his 23 DRS sixth. However, there were concerns lurking beneath those numbers. Batting luck was in their favor, and his walk rate was miles lower than it had been in the minors. Before the 2019 season, JJ Cooper recorded his lowest exit velocity, and Robles posted a league-worst 83.3-mph exit velocity that year.

They call the batting lines the ones that don't stop for a reason. The earlier method and sense of communication failed to catch on at the highest level; Robles posted a 15.7% strikeout rate in the minors, but a 23.3% strikeout rate in the majors. Not only did he fail to develop into any power, he finished in the first percentile in exit velocity four years in a row. As it was possible to separate from the outside, he seemed to be putting in the work. In 2020, he put on 15 pounds of muscle to increase his strength. When the extra weight instead led to a slowdown, he stepped back at the request of the team and worked on reducing his swing and quickness on the ball. As of 2020, Robles has a wRC+ of 70, making him the fifth-worst hitter in baseball over that stretch (less than 1,000 PAs). The pizzicato beauty of the 2019 season shines brightly. In parts of eight seasons, Robles earned a 4.6 WAR, putting up 24.8 runs batted in, 6.6 runs batted in, and 44.7 runs batted in at the plate. If you remove 2019, his WAR drops to 0.86:

For fans who have been reading glowing scouting reports since his teenage years, it was hard to stop dreaming about Robles. Instead, those dreams grew smaller and smaller over time. Once he got the hang of it, he looked like he could be the face of the franchise. After his production picked up, he looked like he could still be a solid, starting pitcher between the gloves. Last season, Washington fans were hoping he could be one of the few middle-of-the-pack players on the team in lockstep. In a short sample of 36 games, Robles gave hope that he might improve his plate handling and make more contact, but disappointment sent him to the IL in May, and his season ended in June. This season, he suffered a hamstring injury after just four games, and when he returned, he posted a wRC+ of 10 over 10 games. The occasional mental error, which had once amounted to youthful exuberance, began to grow. With Lane Thomas returning from IL, there was no place for Robles.

Like any great thinker that goes wrong, we are left wondering how to lay the blame. Did Robles fail to deliver on his promise, did the team's development fail to cultivate it, or were we wrong about that promise in the first place? The answers to those questions are difficult to discern, especially since his work is not yet complete. The development of Washington's players has been going on for a long time now. Evaluation has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and if Robles were to emerge as a prospect today, he might be ranked a little lower.

There's something funny about the fact that failure to improve is what allowed Robles to last so long, while Soto's rise to stardom made him too valuable to stay on the Nationals' most expensive and expensive team. It's only now, with Robles making $2.65 million in his walk-off year — fifth-highest on the team, compared to Jacob Young's minor league salary — and as Washington begins to believe they're about to contend, that patience is wearing thin. Robles ended up losing his spot to Thomas, whose career got off to a slow start before he put up a 3.1 win season in, you guessed it, his age 27 season. We'll soon find out if Robles is traded, waived, or just released, and which team wants to finally get him — and keep him — moving on.

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