Adam Eaton’s ACL tear has been widely reported. It’s a blow to a contending Nationals team that has come firing out of the gate. They are currently tied with the Rockies (!) for the most wins in baseball, and they lead the majors in average, OBP, slugging, and runs scored. The one bit of good luck is that their greatest competition in the division, the Mets, are currently ravaged by injuries; New York’s offense is currently among the worst in baseball when correcting for league and park effects.
One of my managing editors, Ryan Romano, has already gone in depth as to what this injury means for the Nationals. My BtBS co-worker Audrey Stark has described the need for Michael Taylor to step up. Last year, Eaton was worth 6.1 bWAR while Taylor was a sub-replacement level player. With as poorly as the advanced defensive metrics rate Eaton in center field — microscopic sample size, I know, but he has struggled there in the past — the difference between Taylor and him can be projected as roughly four wins.
This team can still win the division, especially if Ryan Zimmerman continues playing anywhere close to his April. However, the Nationals should still do everything they can to have the best record they can achieve, especially now that the All-Star Game no longer determines home field advantage in the World Series. Furthermore, in a game as random and chaotic as baseball, nothing should ever be left to chance.
Victor Robles is a prospect in the Nationals system who projects to be a center fielder, but he is still years away from being ready. The team paid a hefty price to get Eaton in the first place, so paying even more in prospects might be difficult to do. That being said, Robles and/or Juan Soto could get them the center field help they need.
This idea makes the most sense for the Nats. Cain is in a contract year, and there’s no way the Royals are going to re-sign him. They are not a very good team right now, and they are likely to be going into some rebuilding years after 2017. He would just be a rental, but that could fit the Nationals’ needs even better. They would not need him beyond 2017 because Eaton is locked up through 2019, and Robles would presumably be ready by then.
Cain is far from his MVP-caliber 2015 season. Still, at worst, he is an above-average player, which would still be a big upgrade over Taylor. He is walking like crazy now, too. His 15 percent walk rate is more than double his rate from last year, and is a pretty high walk rate in general. He has a low .110 ISO since the beginning of last season, so that combined with his speed and walk rate would make him the perfect leadoff player for the Nationals.
While parting with both Robles and Soto for a rental is going to hurt, I doubt the Royals will trade him for anything less than that. They will have significantly more leverage in this negotiation.
This would require the Pirates to concede the 2017 season, which they are likely unwilling to do this early, even with Starling Marté’s suspension. Cutch had a poor 2016 and is also approaching free agency, with his contract expiring in 2018. Even with some expected positive regression, it is tough to tell what the Nats would get from him in 2017. Furthermore, his defensive metrics in center field were awful last year, which is likely why he was moved to right field this season.
I would still peg McCutchen to be a big improvement over Taylor, and the Nationals could get him for Robles and Soto. What would make me nervous if I were a Nats fan is the thought of McCutchen in center field for the rest of the season. An interesting alternative, however, would be to move Bryce Harper to center. Though his offense get all the attention, he is actually a good defensive right fielder. It would be interesting to try him out in center field and get somebody else to play right field, which should be easier to do.
What interests me most about this option is the possibility of vintage Andrew McCutchen still being somewhere in there. I would not bet on it, but it would be huge if the Nats were to acquire him and then see him go on to have a 5-WAR season.
I made my case for a team to take a flyer on Pagán not long ago. He would not be as impactful as Cain or Cutch, but since he is a free agent, all he would cost is money, and not much money at that. Even with his injury history, the cheap one-year deal he would likely command would still make him very low risk. Assuming health, he could be a one- or two-win upgrade over Taylor.
Other options I considered for center field were Ender Inciarte and Charlie Blackmon. Inciarte is locked up through 2021, so he will still be there when the Braves are good again, which means that they are not going to trade him. If the Rockies were not off to such a great start, Blackmon would be a great option and would be more than just a rental. Unless the Rockies crash and burn in the next couple of months, though, there is no way they are going to make him available.
As I mentioned before, sliding Harper over to center is an option, but there is not much out there for right field. Anything impactful would be unlikely to be available. For example, the Angels are not parting with Kole Calhoun so early in the season, and the Cardinals have Stephen Piscotty under control through 2022, so he is probably not going anywhere either. Nick Markakis could be interesting as long as the Nats could get him for cheap. A league-average hitter with his defense could be at least a one-win upgrade over Taylor.
Others have mentioned moving Trea Turner back to center field and getting somebody else to play shortstop. While that is an interesting option, Dusty Baker has made it clear that he has no intention of doing that.
Adam Eaton’s injury is awful for him, first and foremost. That being said, the Nationals should still be the favorites to win the NL East, but they need to do something in order to maximize their chances of having the best record they can possibly have. Lorenzo Cain is by far their best option to achieve that. Thankfully, he is not their only one.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.