The Washington Nationals sold trading three pitching prospects for Adam Eaton as an investment for their long-term future. Eaton, 28, arrived in the prime of his career with five seasons of team control at far cheaper than the market rate — an eternity for a player of his caliber. But he was also a desperately needed upgrade in center field for the short term, for the Nationals’ attempt to push beyond a best-of-five series in October while Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, GM Mike Rizzo and Manager Dusty Baker were all still under contract. Now, after a lunge at first base Friday night, the Nationals are back to where they were a few months ago, in search of an everyday center fielder.
If there’s a silver lining to the Nationals’ terrible luck, it’s the timing; better to have a key starter tear his anterior cruciate ligament (and tear his meniscus and suffer a high-ankle sprain) in late April than one week before the playoffs (see: Wilson Ramos). That and the club’s early success affords Washington time to evaluate in-house options, which, according to Rizzo, is the plan for now.
“We’re comfortable,” Rizzo said Sunday. “I think that we have the offense to compensate for Adam, we think that we have the personnel specifically at that position to compensate for him, it’s one of the greatest depth positions that we have in the entire organization, so we feel good about that. We feel that we’re still a hell of a team and were going to be tough to reckon with.”
The Nationals figure their lineup is deep enough to absorb Eaton’s loss — scoring a club-record 170 runs in April is sound evidence — and they can upgrade defensively in center field.
Michael A. Taylor will get the first shot — again. It isn’t the first time Taylor has been tasked to replace an injured veteran center fielder in April. It happened in 2015, when Denard Span had two core-muscle surgeries in three months during the offseason and played just 61 games. Taylor batted .229 with a .640 OPS, 14 home runs, and 158 strikeouts in 511 plate appearances. It happened in 2016, when Ben Revere strained his oblique on Opening Day. Taylor finished the year with a .231 batting average, .654 OPS, seven home runs, and 77 strikeouts in 237 plate appearances.
Both were opportunities for Taylor to fulfill the potential the organization projected and embed himself as the center fielder of the future. Instead, the Nationals traded for Revere after the 2015 season, converted Trea Turner to play center field over Taylor and Revere last July, and traded for Eaton in December. Taylor, now 26, is arbitration-eligible and out of options after this season. This is probably his last chance to convince the Nationals he is more than just a seductive set of tools.
“He needs to take his game to a different level, be more consistent in his play,” Rizzo said. “Because he’s shown flashes of brilliance. But he needs to sustain that good play and the consistency in his game.”
Taylor is regarded as the organization’s top defensive outfielder. He has plus speed and power. But strikeouts have tormented him. His 32.5 percent strikeout rate last season was the highest on the Nationals and 12th-highest in baseball among players with at least 230 plate appearances. He swung and missed on 14.5 percent of pitches he saw, second on the Nationals only to noted strikeout machine Danny Espinosa. It was more of the same this season until Eaton got hurt; he started 2 for 21 with nine strikeouts. It’s been just two games, but he was better in his starts over the weekend, going 5 for 11 with a double and three strikeouts.
“Just time to think more straight away and be aggressive and stay in the strike zone,” Baker said. “That’s what he’s doing more. Like I said, hopefully he can build off that, because he’s had two pretty good games and because we need him. We’ll just go from here.”
But a sample of 825 career plate appearances suggests Taylor isn’t an everyday player. What happens then? Baker emphatically shot down the idea of either Turner or Harper moving back to center field, so those don’t appear to be possibilities.
The Nationals could turn to Rafael Bautista, a 24-year-old speedster with little power who was called up to the majors for the first time to replace Eaton on the roster. There’s 22-year-old Andrew Stevenson, a 2015 second-round pick who batted .350 in 20 games for Class AA Harrisburg before he was promoted to Class AAA Syracuse Monday. Victor Robles, Washington’s consensus top prospect, is just 19 and playing for Class A Potomac. The Nationals have a history of players starting a season in Potomac and ending up in Washington, but Robles may be too far away to be considered this season. He’s in the plans for 2018, when the Nationals will likely need an outfielder to replace Jayson Werth. A possible configuration: Eaton in left field, Robles in center and Harper in right.
The external options are limited, though that can change as the weather and trade market heat up. Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain, a free agent this winter, appears to be the best of the available bunch if the 7-16 Royals continue sinking and become sellers. But the price should be high for his services — it could take Robles, Erick Fedde, or Juan Soto and more to land the 2015 all-star — and the Nationals must weigh whether giving up a prized prospect for a possible rental is worth it.
There’s always the possibility of Eaton returning if the Nationals advance deep into October. “Heck no!” Eaton said, when asked if he’s given up on that idea. But that would be a minor miracle. Kyle Schwarber returned for the World Series for the Chicago Cubs last season, but he suffered the injury almost three weeks earlier than Eaton and was limited to DH and pinch-hitting duties when he came back. Eaton is an outfielder, and his game is much more speed dependent.
For now, the Nationals have time to evaluate internal alternatives. They have the best record in baseball and a five-game cushion in a weak National League East through one month. As of Monday, FanGraphs gives them a 90.2 percent chance of winning the division for the fourth time in six seasons. The question is if they think those options are enough in October.