Published 3:36 pm, Sunday, March 11, 2018
Photo: Washington Post Photo By Toni L. Sandys
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – As Adam Eaton chased his young son around the Nationals clubhouse this week, he joked with nearby reporters, suggesting they had disseminated “fake news” by saying he hadn’t played in a game yet this spring. Eaton has yet to play in a Grapefruit League game this year, so reports were correct. But Eaton revealed he has been playing in minor league games, where the Nationals can control his innings and his at-bats.
His reports of a few home runs hit in those games, however, have not been confirmed.
“He’s getting very close. He’s itching to play in some games,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s actually gotten at-bats in the minor leagues. He’s doing really well. He’s looking good . . . hopefully we’ll see him in games here real soon.”
Eaton has not played in a major league game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in late April of last season. Typical recovery time from that injury is eight to 12 months, so he will be well within that window by Opening Day. Still, in a relatively weak division, with a roster loaded with outfield talent, the Nationals have seen no reason to rush him back.
Martinez has said Eaton will hit leadoff whenever he is healthy, bumping Trea Turner to the second spot in the order – an adjustment, given that Turner led off when healthy in 2017. Turner is hitting .280 this spring, though he has struck out in 11 of his 25 at-bats, something he struggled with last season that might make Eaton a more intriguing fit at the top of the order.
Eaton will play left field when he returns, a spot that has been filled by a variety of players in his absence. Brian Goodwin could be a short-term fill-in, though he has struggled somewhat offensively this spring. Victor Robles, who Nationals decision-makers insist will play everyday wherever he starts the season, drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals and has been the most dynamic defender on the roster this spring. Michael A. Taylor hasn’t played in a week because of tightness in his side and isn’t scheduled to be in the lineup Monday either. Without him or Eaton getting regular at-bats, Robles has gotten more at-bats than he might have otherwise. The 20-year-old is hitting .242 with a .702 OPS.
If Eaton and Taylor return by Opening Day, Robles might begin the season in Class AAA Syracuse where he can play center field every day. Andrew Stevenson and Rafael Bautista will likely begin the season in Syracuse, as well. In that scenario, Goodwin would likely serve as the fourth outfielder, joining a projected bench of Matt Adams, Wilmer Difo, Howie Kendrick and whoever ends up as the team’s backup catcher. Kendrick has the most outfield experience of that group, though Martinez has said he will play Difo out there at some point this spring. Difo played six games in the outfield last year, with mixed results.
If either Eaton or Taylor is unable to return by Opening Day, they could leave the door open for Robles, who multiple scouts who follow the team think is ready for regular big league duty right now. But Taylor said he no longer feels any pain, and Eaton is progressing. With two weeks until the team heads north, Martinez and the Nationals are still optimistic both will be ready for Opening Day.
–A.J. Cole was supposed to start Monday’s game in Lakeland, but he contracted a stomach virus and was banned from the complex Sunday. Edwin Jackson will start in his place instead.
–Infielder/outfielder Matt Reynolds hit his first home run of the spring in Sunday’s loss.
–Shawn Kelley allowed his first run of the spring in an inning of work Sunday.
–Tanner Roark, who had not allowed a run this spring, said he never really had his best stuff Sunday. He allowed three runs on five hits in four innings to the Cardinals’ regulars.