LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - There is much Dave Martinez still needs to learn about his Nationals roster, and much of that won’t happen until he gets a chance to see them on practice fields under the spring Florida sun, but the rookie manager was willing to admit he’s already made one key lineup decision: Adam Eaton will bat leadoff in 2018.
In his first media session since he was introduced as the Nationals’ new manager last month, Martinez held court with reporters at the Winter Meetings for 15 minutes and shared some of his vision for the talented but underachieving club he inherited. He didn’t reveal many details about his potential batting order, but he didn’t hesitate to anoint Eaton as his No. 1 hitter.
“If he is healthy, of course, he’s going to lead off and probably play left field,” Martinez said.
Eaton, the Nationals’ biggest offseason acquisition last winter, was healthy for only one month, a torn ACL suffered on April 28 wrecking his first season in D.C. The high-energy outfielder attempted to recover in time for a potential late October return, but the Nats didn’t make that possible when they were once again eliminated in the National League Division Series.
Talking on the phone last month with Martinez, Eaton made it clear he’ll be good to go at the outset next season, though his manager is trying to modify his goal ever so slightly.
“Right now the biggest thing is getting him completely healthy,” Martinez said. “He’s biting at the bit; he hasn’t played in a while. And it’s so funny, I talked to him and he said: ‘I’ll be ready to go in spring training.’ And I said: ‘Hey, hold on a second. I need you to be ready to go opening day.’
“So we’ll take baby steps to get him good baseball-ready and then we’ll go from there.”
Former manager Dusty Baker faced something of a dilemma last spring when deciding how to construct his lineup. Eaton’s acquisition at the 2016 Winter Meetings at National Harbor helped bolster the Nats batting order, but the club also had Trea Turner (who excelled in the leadoff spot in the second half of the 2016 season) in the fold.
Baker elected to open the season with Turner batting first and Eaton batting second, but that changed within a week when Turner strained a hamstring. By the time he returned two weeks later, the shortstop was moved to the No. 2 spot with Eaton batting leadoff.
The Eaton-Turner one-two arrangement was highly effective - the Nationals scored an average of 9.3 runs per game - but it lasted only six games. Eaton suffered his season-ending knee injury April 28, and so Turner hit leadoff the rest of the way.
There are compelling reasons for either to bat first: Turner has blazing speed (79 stolen bases in his last 171 games), while Eaton gets on base at an exceptionally high clip (.363 on-base percentage over the last four seasons, .393 this season). In the end, it appears Martinez will prioritize Eaton’s ability to reach base, at least to open the 2018 season.
Martinez didn’t offer up other specific thoughts on lineup construction, but it’s probably a good idea not to simply assume Turner will bat second. Martinez spent the last decade as Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay and Chicago, and Maddon believes in the notion of batting his best player in the No. 2 spot.
That could produce a lineup featuring a top three of Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper, or perhaps even Harper batting second. Where that would leave Turner remains to be seen, though Maddon also was known at times to bat his pitcher eighth and then a speedy player like Turner ninth.
“We’ve got to keep some things a secret, you know,” Martinez said with a laugh. “Hey, all I can say is that we’ve got a lot of unbelievably good athletes that can do a multitude of things. So you may see some different lineups out there. But you look from up to down, the lineup is really solid. So we’ll play with it a little bit in spring training and see what we can come up with.”
One significant question will involve Daniel Murphy’s status following microfracture surgery on his right knee. General manager Mike Rizzo said last month he’s “optimistic” Murphy will be ready for opening day but could not guarantee it at that early stage of his recovery.
Martinez gave a similarly vague answer today when asked about Murphy.
“He’s doing well,” the manager said. “His rehab is on schedule, and I’m looking forward to getting him in spring training and actually getting him back on the field and see where we’re at.”
Asked specifically if he thinks Murphy will be ready for spring training, Martinez replied: “I don’t know necessarily if he’ll be ready. As of right now, ... his rehab is right on schedule, so we’ll have to take it by ear.”