Posted on April 30, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
The news on Adam Eaton’s injured knee is far worse than the Washington Nationals could have expected. Washington’s center fielder has reportedly been diagnosed with a torn ACL in his left knee. The Nationals have yet to confirm the injury.
The diagnosis comes less than 24 hours after Eaton injured his knee in a loss to the Mets. On the play in question, Eaton was hustling to first base in order to beat out an infield single. He was successful in reaching the bag safely but in the process threw a wrench into his team’s season. The Nationals placed Eaton on the DL Saturday morning with what they called a sprained knee, but the injury turned out to be much more serious and now it appears likely they will have to survive without him for the rest of the 2017 season.
Over the winter, the Nationals traded away three talented pitching prospects in order to get Eaton. At the time, many questioned the trade from Washington’s perspective, but over the first month of the season, Eaton was one of the team’s most impactful players, hitting .297 with a .854 OPS.
The silver lining is that Eaton is under team control through the 2021 season, and so his tenure with the Nationals is far from over. However, Washington’s window to make a serious run at a World Series may only be open for another year or two, and the loss of their starting center fielder is a massive blow to a team in win-now mode.
This is the third consecutive year that Washington’s center fielder has suffered an injury early in the season, and for the third straight year, Michael Taylor will be called upon to fill in. Taylor has struggled to fulfill his great promise in each of the past two seasons, but the injury to Eaton will give him another opportunity. Taylor had three hits Saturday against the Mets in his first game as the team’s regular center fielder, although he’s just 5 for 26 (.192) on the season.
“I told him this morning, he’s been very blessed to keep getting these opportunities,” Baker said of Taylor. “But you got to capitalize on them because this is a lifetime opportunity for him. He’s arbitration-eligible, he’s trying to get an everyday job back.”
Baker said he is committed to giving Taylor a fair chance to hold down the everyday job in center field. However, considering his struggles the past couple of years, the leash may not be as long as Taylor would like.
“Just go out there and play,” Taylor said of his mindset now that he’ll be the everyday center fielder for the foreseeable future. “Don’t really think about, ‘Oh, this as an opportunity to go out there.'”
If Taylor doesn’t take his chance and run with it, the Nationals could turn to Rafael Bautista, who was called up when Eaton went on the DL. Bautista is known best for his speed and defense, although he was hitting .291 through the first few weeks of the season at triple-A. Brian Goodwin, who was 12 for 42 (.286) in a brief stint with the Nationals is currently at triple-A and could be another option in center field.
Now that they know Eaton is out for the long term, the Nationals could entertain the possibility of moving shortstop Trea Turner back to center field. Turner played center field the second half of last season, although moving him away from his natural position would force the Nationals to survive with Wilmer Difo and Stephen Drew at shortstop. Drew is currently on the DL and Difo has a limited big league track record, so that option is far from ideal.
Washington could also look outside the organization for a center fielder. Leonys Martin may be available after being designated for assignment by the Mariners last week. Later in the season, there could be several outfielders available on the trade market. Lorenzo Cain of the Royals, Rajai Davis of the A’s, Jarrod Dyson of the Mariners, Carlos Gomez of the Rangers, Colby Rasmus of the Rays, and Ben Revere of the Angels will all be free agents next winter and could be on the trade block if their teams are out of contention in July.
Of course, for the time being, the Nationals will have to survive with the players currently on their roster. Eaton was one of the players the Nationals could least afford to lose, and so a season-ending injury is a huge blow to their hopes in 2017. Nevertheless, the Nationals remain one of the strongest teams in the National League, but for the first time this year, they will be faced with adversity.