The Washington Nationals own a formidable lineup. With Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner, among others, first-year manager Dave Martinez has the luxury of managing one of MLB’s most feared orders. He also has a mystery piece in outfielder Adam Eaton, who is the Nats’ X-Factor in 2018.
Back at the 2016 MLB Winter Meetings, general manager Mike Rizzo swung a huge trade with the Chicago White Sox for Eaton. Surrendering top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez as well as former first-round pick Dane Dunning, he put all the Nationals’ eggs in one basket for an outfield upgrade. Unfortunately for Rizzo and company, the move didn’t end well.
While he did hit .297 at the top of the order, Eaton suffered a torn ACL in a late-April matchup with the New York Mets, ending his season early. While Michael Taylor did step in and play well in his place, Eaton was supposed to be a focal point of a deep Washington lineup and playoff run. Now heathy, Eaton potentially joins an even more dangerous order in 2018.
Eaton can be utilized as a top-of-the-order weapon. He has wheels, hits for contact, and is an extra-base hit savvy player. Finishing top-ten in triples from 2016-17 and a career .284 hitter, Eaton is capable of being a reliable lefty bat. Fielding his position is where Eaton struggles. While not horrific, the 29-year-old doesn’t have a great arm and, at times, misplays fly balls. And with Taylor’s encouraging 2017 season, chances are he’ll stay in center field, moving Eaton to left — which is better for the well-being of the Nationals outfield. Harper’s arm and skill set are better equipped for right field, and Taylor’s speed makes him tailor-made for center (no pun intended).
So with Eaton’s return, how much better are the Nats? Well, for starters, Eaton’s importance to their lineup will be more critical than it was projected to be last season. At the moment, it appears there’s little chance that Murphy is healthy enough to play on Opening Day, which leaves a gaping hole in the middle of Martinez’s order. Another factor to consider with the Nationals order is Zimmerman’s realistic output this season.
While he hit .303 with a career-high 36 home runs and 108 RBIs last season, the 33-year-old Zimmerman had not played at such a high level since 2012. He was blessed with good health and a resurgence of power in 2017, but duplicating that success this season is not a given.
When you factor in Murphy and Zimmerman, Eaton’s ability to make a profound impact becomes imperative. The Nats are going to need production from multiple players — Eaton being one of them — in the second baseman’s absence. Where Martinez will hit Eaton in the order is not entirely known. One option could be to have him and Turner hit one-two forming a slick top-of-the-order duo. They’d get on base and make things easier for Harper, Rendon, Zimmerman, and friends to drive them in. Another option for Martinez is to hit Eaton near the bottom of the order to help balance out the offensive firepower.
Another plus for the Nationals in Eaton’s presence is that he’s under contract through 2021, so if they lose some key pieces in free agency next offseason such as Harper and Murphy, they will, at the very least, have some depth to make up for the void created by their potential departures. An outfield rotation of Eaton, Taylor, Victor Robles, and Brian Goodwin would be a viable grouping to go forward with.
Eaton is essentially a free agent signing for the Nats. He played in just 23 games last season, can hit anywhere in the order, and will be a welcome addition based on the team’s win-now mentality. At the same time. they do need production at the plate and in the field from the veteran outfielder; he’s the X-Factor to their success. If he plays at the level he’s capable of, the Nationals lineup will prosper. And if Eaton fails to make such an impact, it will add onto the question marks and roadblocks surrounding their ballclub going into Opening Day.
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