In August, after Victor Robles wore a clown nose to clap back at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner from the visitors’ dugout at Chase Field, then ordered a bundle of Robles clown nose T-shirts for the clubhouse, the Washington Nationals’ coaching staff asked him to walk back to his locker — from his pregame stretches on the third base line — to change out of the shirt and into what everyone else was wearing.
“Do you notice that all of your teammates are in red and you’re in a shirt with your face on it?” one coach asked. Robles, 25, didn’t answer. He just disappeared down the tunnel and reemerged a few minutes later in the correct clothes.
Publicly, Manager Dave Martinez had immediately chastised Robles for sporting the clown nose, saying that was “not who we are.” (The Nationals were 32-65 at the time, though the joke did earn Robles an Instagram shout-out from LeBron James.) And privately, the manager was unhappy with the T-shirts, which Robles and many of his teammates wore for weeks.
Robles’s relationship with the team has been fraying since his offense fell off a cliff after the 2019 World Series run. The past week brought another example. On Friday, after Robles and the Nationals couldn’t agree on a salary for 2023, the sides again exchanged figures for a possible arbitration hearing. In March, Robles thought he should make $2.1 million while the club stayed at $1.6 million. This year, Robles wants $2.6 million, according to two people familiar with the situation, while Washington filed at $2.3 million.
Exchanging figures does not guarantee an arbitration hearing in February. Robles and the Nationals eventually settled ahead of their scheduled hearing last year, landing on a $1.65 million salary — just slightly above the team’s initial number. But of the Nationals’ eight arbitration-eligible players, only Robles didn’t strike an agreement Friday, which is all the more notable because of how the past few years have gone.
The team is unhappy with the player’s performance — and in some cases, how he has comported himself as its longest-tenured member after Stephen Strasburg. The player, in turn, does not agree with the team’s evaluation of him. None of it feels like a good jumping-off point for a needed bounce-back season.
“Well, he’s at a point where you’re not a prospect anymore, you’re a big leaguer and you have to … ,” Mike Rizzo said at the general managers meetings in November, his point trailing off there. “This is a performance business, and you have to perform.”
Once one of the sport’s top prospects, Robles has a .291 on-base percentage and a .306 slugging percentage since the start of the 2020 season. In those 965 plate appearances, his adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage — referred to as OPS+, a stat normalized across the majors with ballpark factors accounted for — is 31 points below average. Last season, he ranked in the first percentile in average exit velocity, the eighth percentile in barrel percentage and the sixth percentile in walk percentage, per Statcast.
A strong but deceiving 2019 included underlying metrics that suggested future regression. His value, then, comes with Gold Glove-caliber defense (96th percentile in arm strength, 90th percentile in outs above average) and speed (86th percentile after some decline). And though Robles might commit a handful of head-scratching mistakes each season, his arm, range and instincts in the outfield could prop up even marginally improved production in the batter’s box.
Think about teams that stash a defense-first catcher at the bottom of the order, feeling his framing and work with pitchers is worth a fairly easy out. The Nationals don’t have to deploy that logic with Keibert Ruiz, whom they expect to hit for more power this year. With Robles, though, they could reap the benefits of his defense — benefits even more critical for a young pitching staff — while trying to improve his bat with adjusted expectations.
To this point of the winter, Rizzo and Martinez have used the usual company lines: Robles will have a shot to be the Nationals’ everyday center fielder again. They believe he can improve at the plate. His glove is top-notch.
But if Robles and the team do go to an arbitration hearing during spring training, he would sit in a room while representatives from the club explain why he is worth less than he believes. The process, as designed, can only leave players feeling worse about themselves.
Robles, in all likelihood, will never reach the sky-high expectations that trailed him out of the Dominican Republic. Yet he still could be a functioning part of a rebuilding club that’s bound for another quiet October. That would just require Robles, the on-field staff and the front office getting on a similar page about what’s expected and what’s next.
Early in a new year, that isn’t going well.