“Oh, it was brutal,” Eaton said. “The worst year of my life, I think it’s safe to say. The longest summer of my life.”
Eaton spoke over the weekend at Nationals Winterfest, where he walked around with a slight limp but without the use of crutches. It’s been nearly eight months since he tore the ACL in his left knee lunging for first base on April 28. Eaton acknowledged there was a chance he could have returned in October if the Nationals had advanced deep into the playoffs. They didn’t and Eaton, who had graduated to running by then, shut it down. The objective, he said, is to be ready for spring training.
“I want to be ready coming in,” Eaton said. “I’m going down pretty early, get some extra treatment and some extra focus. But everything’s going really well, and I’m pretty happy where I’m at for the offseason with my knee, and really my whole body.”
Eaton, 29, was considered an under-the-radar star when he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox for three pitching prospects last December to start in center field. Washington was willing to part with three top prospects because Eaton was under team control for just $34.4 million over the next four seasons and the Nationals had decided Michael A. Taylor wasn’t the long-term answer after he failed to convince them over the previous two seasons. But Eaton’s injury gave Taylor another opportunity to play every day. Taylor flourished, to the point that his emergence will push Eaton to left field in 2018 with Bryce Harper in right field. Eaton has started 29 games in left field in his career, but just one since 2013.
“It’s a lot less room to cover,” Eaton said. “I’m going to be looking at Michael for a lot of help, with a healthy knee or without a healthy knee. He runs like a deer, and I’m excited to run alongside him. He’s a heck of a center fielder. I think we’re going to have a really good outfield. An outfield that can run and can throw and we’re going to constantly communicate, and hopefully be one of the best outfields out there. That’s going to be our goal. I definitely think it’s reachable this year. Bryce is a very good athlete. Michael can go get it. And, hopefully, I can scrape together the rest.
“Left field is definitely less ground to cover. I think it’s the most difficult position, honestly. Right is very comfortable. Center is very comfortable. But righty hooks and the way the ball travels from a lefty throwing to second base and to home, it’s definitely a tricky position. I’m excited to get after it and learn as much as I can. I’ve had a few games over there, but not a lot of time over there. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Offensively, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said last week he plans on having Eaton lead off ahead of Trea Turner. Eaton began last season in the two-hole for five games before Turner landed on the disabled list. He then led off in 16 of his final 17 starts before hurting his knee. When he did, he was batting .297 with an .853 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, serving as the sparkplug for baseball’s best offense in April.
“He looks great,” Martinez said. “He’s biting at the bit. The biggest thing is to kind of get him to realize is that, hey, we want him ready for Opening Day. He’s going to get opportunities to play in spring training a lot, but we want him ready for Opening Day.”
The 5-foot-8 Eaton admitted it’ll be difficult to dial it back during spring training — “Short Man Syndrome. Without a doubt,” he said. If he is ready for Opening Day, Eaton will represent an on-field upgrade over Jayson Werth, Washington’s Opening Day left fielder last season. It will be, in a way, like a new acquisition, one that will bolster what had already been one of baseball’s most dangerous lineups for a club coming off 97 wins.