WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - He’s yet to take part in an official spring training workout, and his first Grapefruit League game is still six days away, but new Nationals center fielder Adam Eaton is already feeling comfortable enough in his new surroundings to dream about what might me.
From his stall at the end of veterans’ row in the Nationals clubhouse, he peers to the right and sees some big sticks - first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, second baseman Daniel Murphy, right fielder Bryce Harper and left fielder Jayson Werth - and ponders the thunder they might create.
In Eaton’s vision, he’s the lighting, the igniter at or near the top of the lineup. He wants nothing more than to get on base, create some havoc and score some runs. And if manager Dusty Baker still isn’t sure who his leadoff hitter will be, Eaton wants him to know that he’s up to the challenge.
“I love to try to impact the game as much as I can and being lower in the lineup, sometimes you don’t get as many at-bats. ... The approach changes dramatically,” Eaton said Sunday when he met with the media for the first time at spring training. “In the leadoff spot, you want to get on any way, shape or form. See as many pitches as you can. Later in the lineup, it definitely matters who hits in front of you, behind you. If you’re in the eighth spot, the pitcher’s behind you ... and that puts a big brake on things.”
Baker has a difficult choice, though there really isn’t a wrong answer. He’s likely to choose Eaton, acquired from the White Sox in a December trade for three premier pitching prospects, or Trea Turner, who is moving from center field to his natural shortstop position, as his leadoff hitter. Whoever isn’t atop the order could bat second, though having Eaton in that spot could put the Nats in the tough position of having three left-handed hitters (Eaton, Harper and Murphy) in succession.
Hitting out of the second spot of the order is OK with Eaton, too. So long as he’s in the middle of the offensive madness, he’s a happy camper.
“Same with the two-hole - if you’re in the two-hole, you can be a little more aggressive in that spot,” Eaton said. “But hit-and-run really opens up a can of options for you. But like I said, still have a bat in my hand and there’s still a pitcher on the mound, so do the best I can in any spot they put me in. Anything for the betterment of the team.”
At 5-foot-8, Eaton is a smallish guy used to working doubletime to make a big impression. It’s not by accident that his t-shirt on the first day of full-squad workouts was a blue retro number featuring the image of Mighty Mouse, a cartoon superhero whose heyday came long before the 28-year-old Eaton was born. His wife’s purchase from Nordstrom Rack is near and dear for numerous reasons.
“I was called this in college, Mighty Mouse, and you can look at the stats,” Eaton said. “I tried to have a little Napoleon syndrome, as I’ve talked about before. I tried to embrace the Mighty Mouse character. ... Anybody that’s small in size, in this game especially - Jose Altuve, Dustin Pedroia - you know you definitely play with a chip on your shoulder to say that smaller guys can play this game and play at a high level. For me, I always tell fans that half the fans are taller than me and to tell their little ones that, hey, anything’s possible, it doesn’t matter the size or the strength or anything. If you have the determination, a dream, go out and reach it. I think I’m definitely living proof that you don’t have to be 6-(foot)-3 to go out and play in this league and you don’t have to be the most athletic and the prettiest runner. Everything doesn’t have to be beautiful, just go out and have a drive and reach your goal.”
Eaton was actually one of the first arrivals at spring training, posting on Instagram photos from The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches even before pitchers and catchers were required to report. He wanted to get acclimated, given that he was changing leagues following three seasons with the American League White Sox and moving to a Florida-based camp after spending his entire year training in Arizona with the Diamondbacks and White Sox.
“I got here pretty early and tried to get my feet beneath me a little bit,” he said. “Organization has been great so far. One thing that I’ve noticed is that they do everything to win. So far, that’s the beauty of it. Everything is focused on winning around here, and getting everyone better is really like the first thing I’ve taken away.”
Changing leagues brings challenges, Eaton said.
“It is a very large adjustment,” he said. “AL is a different brand of baseball. Not just from a pitching standpoint, but from a hitting standpoint. Again, having the pitcher in the lineup (in NL) kind of changes a lot of things, and the double-switches and whatnot is huge. From the actual standpoint of seeing pitchers, they’re still right- and left-handed. They may change the angle a little bit, but it’s going to take some time to see, especially in the division.”
Eaton will move back to center field after spending most of last season manning right field, a switch that frees Turner up to return to shortstop. Baker likes to have clubs that are strong up the middle, but three important guys are either new to the team or playing a different position than last year: Eaton, Turner and catcher Derek Norris.
Defensive metrics were a main reason for Eaton’s positional switch last season, but he remains confident he’s got the chops to handle the job. One sure way to get Eaton to perform is to tell him that he can’t do something. He’s made a career out of confronting his doubters and proving them wrong.
“I went to a mid-major school, Miami of Ohio, and I was told (by coaches) in high school that if I have a 6-foot player and a 5-8 player with the same attributes, I always take the taller player,” Eaton explained. “That’s what I was told. That kind of stuck with me, honestly. I don’t think you can measure heart. I don’t think you can see within someone and their desire to play 162 games, and that kind of stuck with me. That took a while, for sure.
“But as this game evolves and as your personality evolves on the field and off the field, you kind of have peace with it at some point. The 19th-round draft pick stuck with me a little while and I got that monkey off my back, where people don’t look at me as a 19th-rounder. I just want people to see me as a baseball player and a gamer and a guy that’s going to go out there and put everything out there for his team.”
Eaton smiles as he explains that his approach and execution might not always be pretty, though he expects people will be pleased with the results he produces.
“I don’t have the most beautiful swing. I don’t run the most crisp running,” he said. “I just try to get the job done as best as I can.”