Eaton's Return Creates a Unique Problem for the Nationals
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The Washington Nationals are currently locked in a virtual tie with the Atlanta Braves atop the NL East, but D.C.'s team is about to receive reinforcements. Outfielder Adam Eaton is on track to return from the disabled list shortly. However, General Manager Mike Rizzo will be faced with an interesting roster decision in order to make room for him.
Eaton, who is currently on a minor league rehab assignment, is eligible to return from the 60-day DL tomorrow, June 8, and all signs point to him being ready to be immediately activated. He has started four games between Harrisburg (AA) and Potomac (A+) as he marches towards his return, including two in center field, one in left field, and one as the designated hitter.
Eaton was first placed on the 10-day DL on April 11, retroactive to April 9, with a bone bruise on his left ankle, which occurred on an awkward slide into home. However, it later required surgery, and the Nationals bumped him onto the 60-day DL, in order to make room for an additional player (catcher Spencer Kieboom) on the 40-man roster.
Prior to the injury, Eaton was excelling at the plate, as Washington's leadoff hitter. He had a .345/.424/.655 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage) in eight games, and a portion of that was with the bad ankle.
It could certainly be argued that Eaton has been a disappointment so far in D.C., given the prospects it took to get him and the injuries he's struggled with (he tore his ACL in late-April last season, as well). Nonetheless, his return will add to the list of established hitters in the team's batting order on a day-to-day basis, with Daniel Murphy still on the way.
With that said, someone has to fall on the losing end when he returns, and they likely won't deserve it. Obviously, it won't be Bryce Harper (at least not until the offseason, when he'll demand a king's ransom), but at least one of Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin, and Juan Soto will lose significant playing time, if not a roster spot.
Although Taylor has struggled offensively this season, he is an extremely "toolsy" player. He is a premier defender in center field, validated by being a Gold Glove finalist last season. He is also one of the quickest players the Nationals have, as evidenced by his 16 stolen bases in 17 attempts this season.
Possibly the least important aspect to Taylor's game, but most glaring from a casual viewer's perspective, is his bat. He won't hit for a high average (although the .271 mark he put up last season was a major improvement), and he has struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances as a big leaguer. While he has sneaky power to make up for it, that rate is still extremely high.
Combine the strikeout rate with a batting average that has been below the Mendoza Line (.200) more often than above it this year, and his deservingness of playing time comes into question. However, he's done himself a major favor lately, as pointed out by Mark Zuckerman, the team's beat reporter for masnsports.com, late in Wednesday's win over the Rays.
As long as he's hot, the offensive contributions make him all the more impossible to not play regularly.
Brian Goodwin was actually on the DL himself until recently. He was activated on June 1 after being inactive for six weeks with a left wrist contusion. Even before that point, he was serving as Washington's fourth outfielder. Therefore, judging him by this season's numbers would be both unfair, since he hasn't had consistent playing time, and simply an inaccurate measure.
Last season, however, in his first (roughly) full season on the roster Goodwin received significant reps, due to a flurry of injuries. He got his first run as a regular in left field, but later took over in center for Taylor, who missed over a month with an oblique strain. On the year, he sported a .251 batting average with 13 homers and 21 doubles in 251 at bats, and was also six-for-six stealing bases.
Goodwin's case seems particularly murky. He was once the team's top prospect, and his 2017 statistics seem to somewhat validate that, but he struggled immensely at times in the minor leagues. In fact, it was bad enough that he was demoted to AA for all of 2015 after spending the entire season prior in AAA, and he was roughly a .220 hitter in both seasons. He's been much better since then, but there's always a chance that he'll snap back into his old habits, especially since it's still early in his big league career.
If the player he's been lately is who he is, Goodwin may be more reliable than Taylor offensively, and he can serve as an average-to-above defender at all three outfield spots. However, he's only played consistently in relatively short spurts thus far, and he doesn't seem to have a particular skill that stands out.
Now to the fun one. While Goodwin was also still on the DL, and immediately after Howie Kendrick ruptured his Achilles (ok, saying that definitely wasn't fun), the Nationals turned to a 19-year-old kid from AA named Juan Soto. Rated as the No. 22 prospect in the league by Baseball Prospectus entering this season, Soto tore up the minor leagues for a month and a half, forcing Rizzo to make an unconventional move, since he generally prefers to groom players within the system for as long as possible, regardless of their numbers (like Trea Turner).
Prior to getting the call, Soto was leading the minors in home runs (14), playing across three levels. Naturally, his first hit, on the first pitch he saw as a major league starter, was a home run. What a way to set yourself up to fail going forward! Somehow, though, he hasn't. He's been a fixture in the heart of the lineup, and through his first 16 games, he's batting .346 with six extra-base hits and as many walks (nine) as strikeouts.
There are two things that are particularly remarkable about Soto that you wouldn't realize when watching him. The first is that he's the youngest player in the majors by over a year, even though he looks just as polished (if not more) than just about everyone he faces. His ability to choke up on the bat with two strikes and hit to the opposite field is uncanny. If that isn't crazy enough, he started this season in Low-A Hagerstown. He progressed from the lowest classification of full-season baseball all the way to the roster of a major league playoff contending team in a month and a half. That's unheard of.
With that said, there are also two factors working against him, neither of which are under his control. For one, he can be optioned to the minor leagues with no repercussions. None of the other players in this logjam can be. The other knock is, for lack of a better term, "the system," and it's multifaceted. There is a notion that if a prospect isn't playing every day, even if it's at the big league level, he isn't being developed optimally. Also, clubs like to play the service time game. Keeping a player in the minors for two or three weeks after the start of the season ensures that you have the opportunity to keep him for an extra year prior to him becoming a free agent. That's already the case for Soto. However, there's also the Super Two rule, dealing with salary arbitration eligibility, which would at least entice the club to send Soto down until around the All-Star break, if not later.
With all of that said, here are the two most likely outfield configurations going forward. The first is exactly as it looked on Opening Day, and the most ideal defensively. The second is the optimal offensive lineup.
LF: Adam Eaton
CF: Michael A. Taylor
RF: Bryce Harper
Bench: Brian Goodwin
LF: Juan Soto
CF: Adam Eaton
RF: Bryce Harper
Bench: Michael A. Taylor (and possibly Goodwin)
The former seems less likely to materialize. As stated earlier, promoting a player this soon was uncharacteristic of Rizzo, so despite how impressive Soto has looked, it can probably be treated as if it never happened. On top of that, "the system" is in play in his case. Additionally, unless the team kept all five guys and shortened the bullpen, someone would have to either be traded or exposed to waivers if it opted to stick with Soto, which is unnecessary, especially since Soto can be called up when rosters expand in September, and even placed onto the postseason roster, at no cost. Oh, and by the way, the team may be getting healthy now, but injuries can always show up again, so why cut into the depth?
Sticking with the theme of twos, here are a couple more things to keep in mind. As alluded to earlier (as if it hasn't already been stated enough on a national scale), Bryce Harper will be a free agent this offseason. If he doesn't return, that opens up a spot starting next season. Also, Victor Robles, mlb.com's fourth-best prospect, hyperextended his elbow in the first week of the season in AAA, and, although he may not factor into the equation this season, he becomes another piece to the puzzle in the not-too-distant future.
All told, this is baseball's version of a First World problem. It's an embarrassment of riches that will sort itself out in due time. For now, though, the best option is to stick with the experienced guys and keep Soto as one of the best insurance policies in the league.