The Nationals paid up big for Adam Eaton this winter, sending a trio of their top prospects to the White Sox in exchange for one of baseball’s best leadoff hitters. Like most of what the team has done lately, that move was accompanied by a sense of urgency—Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after next season, the loaded back-ends of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg’s contracts are coming, and so the Nationals’ window to win feels like it may be closing.
So while Washington has Eaton under contract through the 2021 season, it’s really only this year and next that matter. And now this year is gone.
Eaton tripped over first base and landed awkwardly on Friday, and the team announced this morning that he would almost certainly be out for the season. The Nationals have jumped out to the best record in the National League, but the loss of Eaton means their chances of sustaining that have taken a serious hit.
The team has had the best offense in baseball so far, slashing a collective .284/.359/.481. While Eaton’s been a meaningful part of that—outperforming his work in the previous few seasons and especially shining in his plate discipline, with a walk rate five percentage points above anything he’s ever posted before—he has, obviously, only been one part. Bryce Harper has returned to peak form. Ryan Zimmerman is mysteriously playing better than he ever has. (There are many reasons to be deeply skeptical of early-season WAR, yes, but the fact that he’s already amassed more fWAR than he has in any full-season since 2013 is pretty telling.) Daniel Murphy is outperforming projections in much the same way that he did last year, and Matt Wieters is making last season’s struggles at the plate look like nothing more than a distant memory.
All of that is great! But it’s in all likelihood not sustainable at the current level, and losing their leadoff hitter makes that even harder. The drop-off from Eaton to any of his potential outfield replacements is steep. The most likely longterm candidate is former top prospect Michael Taylor, with a career strikeout rate of 32 percent. Chris Heisey, the next backup, doesn’t offer anything much more encouraging.
The Nationals have been dealt some luck in that the Mets, their main competitor in the division, have gotten off to a dismal start that might continue if the team can’t stay healthy. But if that changes, they face what could be a tough NL East race where one or two games could be the difference—and Eaton could have been those.