The Nationals, more so than most teams, have fallen short of expectations in recent years. Despite continually fielding one of the best rosters in baseball, the club has made the postseason just three times over the past five seasons; in each of those playoff years, it lost in the divisional round. With demigod Bryce Harper only two years away from free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg getting older and pricier, Washington’s window won’t stay open forever.
Cognizant of this, GM Mike Rizzo made a bold move in December, dealing away three of the team’s top pitching prospects for White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton. The 28-year-old was coming off a career year, in which he combined an above-average bat with an elite glove to earn 6.0 fWAR. His contract pays him $18.4 million through 2019 with a pair of team options beyond that, so he can stick around as well. Overall, it looked like a solid decision for the Nationals — they found someone to man center field and give them an extra three to four wins per year.
Thus far in 2017, Eaton has looked the part, accumulating 0.6 fWAR in 107 plate appearances on the strength of a 130 wRC+. Last night, though, his season — and that of the Nationals — took a turn for the worse: As he sprinted toward first to leg out an infield hit, Eaton’s left food came down awkwardly, and he tumbled to the ground. He had to leave the game in the ninth inning, unable to walk under his own power.
We don’t know yet how severe the injury is, but based on the unsettling video, it doesn't look good. Manager Dusty Baker noted as much after the game. If Eaton has to miss weeks or even months, the Nats will need a center fielder, which presents a pretty big problem.
Like a lot of contenders, the Nationals have a top-heavy roster, having sold their future to win in the present. That's why the team allowed Jeremy Guthrie to turn in a historically terrible start against the Phillies — with Joe Ross starting the season in the minors, Washington didn't have a better option to round out its rotation. Similarly, the choices to fill in for Eaton don't inspire much optimism:
Nationals outfield projections
Taylor and Heisey (as of this writing) are the only two bench outfielders on Washington’s 25-man roster. The former excels in the field (11.4 UZR/150 since debuting in 2013, which is the 25th-best in MLB) but flounders at the plate (68 wRC+ in that span, which is the 11th-worst in MLB). The latter is a 32-year-old never-was who can’t really hit or field; the only thing nice about him is his career fWAR, which I invite you to look up yourself.
The two farmhands below them are no more appealing. Over the last three years in the minors, Bautista’s hit .280/.334/.342 for a 94 WRC+; at age 24, he doesn’t have the potential for much more. Goodwin is two years older than that, and he doesn’t have. Bautista’s speed. It sounds like Bautista is being called up, and while he’s MLB-ready in a sense, he’ll struggle against elite competition.
Below these four, a couple of impact players lurk. Victor Robles and Juan Soto are each top-100 prospects; the former has blazing speed and a cannon attached to his shoulder, while the latter supplements his raw power with impressive plate discipline. The issue is, both of them are teenagers, and neither has reached Double A. They can start in the outfield a few years down the road, but for now, Robles and Soto need time to develop (which the Nationals plan to give them).
The Nationals do have an in-house center fielder (of sorts) who could fill in quite well for Eaton: Trea Turner. The 23-year-old speedster racked up 3.3 fWAR in the second half of 2016 while manning center; after Washington traded for Eaton and dealt Danny Espinosa to the Angels, Turner amicably moved back to shortstop, where he played in the minors.
But, of course, filling the Peter-sized hole in center leaves a Paul-shaped crater at short. If Turner returns to the outfield, Wilmer Difo would become the shortstop, which isn’t ideal for the Nationals: Difo is a weak hitter who can’t compensate in the field. Turner and Difo starting isn’t much better than Turner and Taylor/Heisey/Bautista, regardless of position — and this isn’t even getting into the fact that Turner had some hiccups in center field last year. Washington doesn’t have a simple solution for Eaton’s absence.
The Nationals still have Harper, who’s playing like an MVP again, and Scherzer and Strasburg, each of whom has a sub-three ERA with peripherals to match. The core players should continue to contribute, helping the Nationals remain in the playoff hunt. With that said, the dropoff from Eaton to his replacement — whether that’s Taylor or Heisey becoming a starter, or Difo taking Turner’s position — would cost Washington at least a win over a full season. In a tight race with the Mets, that difference could be costly.
Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.