That Adam Eaton trade is looking better and better every day.
Back in December, when the Washington Nationals acquired Eaton from the Chicago White Sox, the consensus was that Washington got fleeced. In giving up three top pitching prospects, general manager Mike Rizzo paid well above market value for a 28-year-old outfielder who has never been an All-Star. Even those who put a lot of stock in Eaton’s value as a defender weren’t sold on the deal, seeing as he’d be moving from right field — where he was one of baseball’s best last year — back to center field, where he last played in 2015 and graded out poorly. But a week into the 2017 season, the Eaton deal is looking like a stroke of genius.
Forget that in his first game with the Nationals, batting out of the two-hole, Eaton doubled, walked twice, stole a base and scored a run. Forget that he hit safely in each of his first four games, drawing five free passes and posting a .500 on-base percentage in the process. The real revelation surrounding Eaton’s value has come in the past couple of days, ever since Trea Turner pulled up lame in the first inning of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
At first glance, losing Turner to the disabled list with a tweaked hammy would appear to be a huge blow for the Nationals, no matter how long the DL stint. After all, this is a Washington squad whose leadoff hitters spent the first half of last year ranking pretty much dead last in every offensive category known to mankind. Once Turner exploded onto the scene, hitting .342 with 13 bombs and 33 steals in just 73 games, Dusty Baker’s lineup was a completely different beast. No wonder Turner finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. No wonder he is expected to make MVP noise in 2017. In theory, losing a guy like that could and should be a killer. In reality, the Nats appears to be just fine, thanks to Eaton.
In two games batting leadoff in place of Turner, the lefty-swinging Eaton is 4-for-8 with two walks. In Monday’s series-opening 14-6 win over St. Louis, he terrorized the Cardinals by going 3-for-4 with a walk, scoring twice and driving in three runs.
On the one hand, it’s a painfully small sample size. Then again, it’s not like this is new for Eaton, who’s spent the past two days doing more or less what he’s done throughout his entire career: Since debuting in 2012, his .359 on-base percentage out of the 1-hole is the fifth-highest among MLB leadoff hitters. It’s the very reason Baker has spent more time than he’d care to over the past few months answering questions about what the top of his lineup would look like, about whether he’d use Turner or Eaton as his leadoff hitter. It’s also likely one of the reasons Baker felt comfortable taking the cautious route with Turner’s injury.
“If we didn’t nip it in the bud now, it might be bothering him all year long,” the Nats skipper told reporters on Monday. “You don’t want this thing to reoccur, it’s early in the season.”
The fact that the minimum DL stint has shrunk from 15 to 10 games doesn’t hurt, either. Given that Washington has two off days coming up in the next week and a half, there’s a decent chance Turner will miss only eight games. Having an experienced big league shortstop backing up Turner, which the Nats do in Stephen Drew (who went 3-for-4 on Monday), makes it even easier to swallow.
But more than anything, what’s allowed the Nationals to stomach the loss of Turner — and presumably what’s helping Baker sleep at night despite losing one of baseball’s most promising young stars — is the ability to pencil in Eaton’s name at the top of the lineup for the next week or so.
If Eaton keeps doing what he’s been doing, he might find himself hitting leadoff for a lot longer than that.