It’s the culmination of back-to-back poor seasons for Robles, who finds himself in the minors for the first time since 2018. Robles has more or less been Washington’s everyday center fielder over the past three seasons, a role he’s been expected to hold for years. A one-time top prospect, Robles seized the center field job during the Nats’ World Series winning 2019 campaign. While he was a slightly below-average hitter that year, Robles rated as one of the league’s best baserunners and defensive outfielders. Only 22 years old, he looked to be a core piece who could emerge as an All-Star caliber player with just a bit of an improvement at the plate over the coming seasons.
Not only has Robles not taken another step offensively, he’s completely fallen flat at the plate. Since the start of the 2020 campaign, the right-handed hitter has posted a .209/.304/.302 line over 558 plate appearances. That translates to a 67 wRC+ that suggests Robles has been 33 percentage points worse than the league average hitter. Of the 181 hitters with 500+ plate appearances over the past two years, only four (Kevin Newman, Elvis Andrus, Gregory Polanco and Garrett Hampson) have been less productive at the plate.
Those struggles have cost Robles playing time in recent days, as he hadn’t started a game since Friday. Lane Thomas, acquired from the Cardinals at the trade deadline, has started the past three games in center and is in the lineup there again tonight. With Robles relegated to fourth outfielder duty at the big league level, the Nationals have evidently determined it better to get him continued reps against minor league pitching.
The Nationals could bring Robles back up relatively shortly, as position players only need be on optional assignment for ten days before they’re eligible to be recalled. (They can be brought up within ten days if recalled to replace an injured player). However, the timing of the demotion could suggest they’re prepared to leave Robles in the minors for additional experience. Active rosters expand from 26 to 28 players starting tomorrow, so the Nats weren’t under immediate pressure to make a move from a roster limit perspective. Instead, it seems the team has decided an optional assignment to be the more prudent course of action for Robles’ long-term development.
Even if Robles doesn’t return to the majors this season, the demotion shouldn’t have an effect on his service time outlook. He entered the season with 2.052 years of big league time and has already accrued around 152 days of service this season. That’s more than enough to push him beyond the three-year threshold as had been anticipated. He’ll qualify for arbitration for the first time this offseason and is still ticketed to reach free agency over the 2024-25 offseason — assuming he begins next year on Washington’s active roster.