As he told the story, Martinez held his hands out, as if to calm Eaton from afar. Calming him from close range isn’t easy, either. The energetic 29-year-old endured inactivity for most of his first season as a National after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in April. Next season, he is a major part of Washington’s plans. Martinez said if Eaton is healthy, he plans to make him a left fielder, which is no surprise given Michael A. Taylor’s emergence as a Gold Glove nominee in center. He also said he plans to hit Eaton in the leadoff spot, a more noteworthy declaration given the other leadoff option is Trea Turner, one of the fastest men in baseball.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo always liked Eaton as a leadoff man, with Turner hitting behind him. Eaton led off most of the games he played for the Nationals before he tore his ACL, though Turner began the season in that role before suffering a hamstring injury of his own. Eaton has a .360 career on-base percentage in that spot — highest of any spot in the lineup. Turner is a .299 career hitter with a .343 on-base percentage in that spot.
But the consensus has been that Turner can both drive in runs and bunt for a hit, and Eaton works counts better than Turner, who is still maturing in that way. With Eaton leading off, Turner can bridge the gap to the big bats in the middle of the order, can move a runner or drive him in instead of needing to get on base. Still, the argument for Eaton in the leadoff spot is not invincible.
Turner is more free to steal bases in the leadoff spot. If he is on base with Eaton up, he can still, trusting that Eaton can handle the bat to foster his safe advancement. If he is on base with Bryce Harper up (or whomever Martinez decides to hit third), Turner will have to stay put more often so as to give that hitter a chance to swing without distraction or interruption. His speed becomes less of a weapon in the second spot.
But Turner can just as easily bunt for a hit as use the more traditional line drive and has enough power to be a run producer batting second if given the chance. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon have solidified that second spot in the past, less because they can bunt a man over than because of their versatility. Like Turner, both provided enough power to drive in runs and the ability to create chances for others. Turner, though more prone to swings and misses than either of them, has the same ability.
With Eaton leading off, the Nationals can create a lineup full of matchup challenges. Eaton is left-handed, Turner right-handed, Harper left-handed, and so on. Martinez could alternate lefties and righties up and down his lineup, thereby forcing managers to make tough choices late in games — something Dusty Baker treasured and something the Nationals saw alter their fate when Baker had to match up against the Cubs’ lineup in October.
Regardless, Martinez seems to think Eaton will fit best at the top of his order, something that could change between now and April, depending on Eaton’s health. Eaton says he will be healthy. Martinez wants him to take it slow, at least in spring training. If all goes to Martinez’s evolving plan, Eaton will be the first National to the plate in 2018.