WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Adam Eaton arrived here with his family on Jan. 19, exactly a month before Washington Nationals position players must report for spring training. He and his wife wanted to get away from the brutal cold in Michigan, where temperatures hovered around zero degrees for much of the winter. Lying on a beach seemed like a good idea. On top of that, the shortest apartment leases offered around here are for three months. No sense in paying a month’s rent without using the place.
Eaton’s extra time here, of course, wasn’t exactly a vacation. The 29-year-old outfielder is still in recovery mode nearly 10 months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last April. He’s nearing the finish line, and on Wednesday, 43 days before the Nationals begin the regular season in Cincinnati, Eaton said he was confident he’ll be ready for that first game.
“We still have quite a bit of time until Opening Day, and that’s our focus,” Eaton said. “Unless something unforeseen happens, I think that’s easily attainable.”
Eaton has checked nearly all the boxes in his rehabilitation; he’s run in a straight line, fielded groundballs, long-tossed, and hit batting practice. Two steps remain: cutting on the knee and facing live pitching. He’ll tackle those before appearing in a Grapefruit League game. When that is exactly, he said he doesn’t know.
When he does play, it’ll be as left fielder. He’ll move from center field to replace the departed Jayson Werth after Michael A. Taylor’s two-way emergence in his absence last season solidified his place in center. Eaton’s experience in left field includes 42 games, 29 starts, and 298 1/3 innings at the major league level. He started two games there last season.
“Michael Taylor is more than accomplished in center,” Eaton said. “That dude plays a heck of a center field. And I’m a man and I’ll say he can probably play a better center field than I can at this point, with my leg especially. … I can play all three. I don’t really care. I really don’t. I’m comfortable in all three and I hope that’s a value to me. But wherever [Manager Dave Martinez] sees fit, I’ll play and give it my all.”
The position change — and having Taylor’s range in center field — should help Eaton limit the stress on his knee as he works his way back to normalcy. Doctors told him it’ll take some time before he feels like himself. But he also said he believes he’ll return a slightly different player, one who doesn’t play as recklessly as before. He said his game was already headed in that direction with age; the injury will just hasten the conversion.
“If you look early in my career I really played with my hair on fire,” Eaton said. “Like running into walls, doing really stupid stuff. And then kind of the first, second year in Chicago, I tried to slow things down, be more methodical, try to be more solid.”
In December, Martinez said he planned on having Eaton lead off, a noteworthy statement given Trea Turner’s strong candidacy for the role. Turner will then likely bat second, giving the Nationals a dynamic top-of-the-order duo they envisioned setting the table for Bryce Harper and company when they traded three top pitching prospects for Eaton two offseasons ago.
Eaton thrived in the role in his limited time last season, batting .314 with an .816 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 16 games as the leadoff man before the injury. He was the sparkplug during a historic offensive April for the Nationals, and he should be back in time to do it again.
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