The less obvious post-Turner choice involved who would hit behind Eaton and ahead of Bryce Harper, a position nearly as important to the Nationals’ offensive well-being as Eaton’s in the leadoff spot.
Sunday and Monday, Baker chose Anthony Rendon for the job. Rendon has hit second more in his career than anywhere else. His speed, bat control, and propensity for contact make him an obvious candidate. But Rendon started the season slowly, and entered Tuesday’s game with an on-base percentage of .238, more than 100 points below his career norm. After Monday’s game, he is 0 for 10 in two games hitting second. Certainly, a slow start is no cause for panic on April 10, but could a hotter hitter fit best until Turner returns next week?
“The only guy we really need to get going now is Anthony,” Baker said after Monday’s win, in which Rendon went 0 for 6. “I’m not worried about Anthony. I hope he’s not worried himself because Anthony’s gonna hit.”
Part of Rendon’s appeal in the second spot is his ability to work counts and see pitches. The more pitches he sees, the more pitches Harper sees on deck behind him, the more pitches Eaton has to run ahead of him — the more troublesome the lineup becomes. Rendon saw more pitches per plate appearances last season than all but two regulars, Harper and Jayson Werth.
Werth would be the other easy choice to hit behind Eaton. In each of the past two seasons, Werth started slowly then found his rhythm after a mid-summer’s shift to the second spot. But Werth’s career average and OPS in that spot are lower than in any other spot in the batting order. As much as it feels as if Werth has jumped into form when moved up in the order, his career numbers show he fares better in the middle, where his on-base percentage is highest. Werth had two hits Monday, and seems more in-sync than Rendon.
Meanwhile, while it is irrelevant until Turner returns, Baker’s concerns about stacking left-handers near the top of the lineup seems unfounded. Through Tuesday, Eaton, Harper and Murphy were 5 for 6 with three walks and a double against left-handed pitching this year. Perhaps Eaton’s apparent comfort in the leadoff spot will lead Baker to reconsider the top of his order when Turner returns. Perhaps the success of his lefties against left-handed pitching will ease his mind about hitting Eaton second. For now, the Nationals will rely on Eaton to sub for Turner in the leadoff spot, and it does not seem they will lose much sleep because of it.
“We had a double leadoff man from the time we got him,” Baker said.
At the bottom of the order, Turner’s shortstop replacement, Stephen Drew, drove in four runs Monday night, most of his Nationals career. Baker, Mike Rizzo and others prioritized re-signing Drew this offseason, aware not only of what he could do for the clubhouse and off the bench, but as a reliable and experienced backup to Turner, who has never played a full season at shortstop.
Though Drew went 3 for 4 with a double and a sacrifice fly Monday night, Wilmer Difo could start at shortstop Tuesday. Baker said before the game he would not play Drew every day in Turner’s absence because he does not want to wear down the 34-year-old, who is not used to everyday duty.