As the start of spring training fast approaches, we’re breaking down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series concludes today with the outfield ...
Given the talent they had - not to mention three established starters to begin the season - it’s hard to believe the Nationals wound up using 14 different outfielders in 2017, the fourth-highest total in the majors. Chalk that up not to poor performance but a seemingly never-ending string of injuries both major and minor that required some significant roster finagling and often a daily piecing together of the lineup just to find a combination that worked.
That shouldn’t be as much of a concern for new manager Dave Martinez in 2018, but if there are injuries along the way again the organization appears well-stocked with replacements.
Everything starts, of course, with Bryce Harper, who missed 6 1/2 weeks with a knee injury that looked even worse at the time but at least allowed him to return in time for the postseason. Harper didn’t quite look 100 percent healthy upon his return from the disabled list, but he’s had a full winter of rest and will come to camp fully healthy. That could be a frightening thought for opposing pitchers.
Few players in the majors will be as motivated as Harper to put together a monster season, with free agency now looming in the immediate future. If he plays 150-plus games and posts the kind of numbers we’ve seen from him when healthy in the past, he will have earned the biggest contract in the sport’s history. He’ll still get paid big time even if that doesn’t happen, but there could be at least some hesitation among suitors to get into a bidding war on a player who thus far has averaged only 128 games played per season in the majors.
Harper looked like he tore his ACL when he landed awkwardly on first base during a rain-delayed August game against the Giants. Adam Eaton actually did tear his ACL on an eerily similar play in late April against the Mets and wound up missing the rest of the season.
Healthy at last, Eaton will finally get a chance to reward the Nationals for believing enough in him to ship three pitching prospects to the White Sox a year ago to acquire his services. There still are important physical (and mental) tests to pass this spring, but Eaton is expected to be ready for opening day and has been penciled in by Martinez as the club’s leadoff hitter. A switch from center field to left field also should help prop up his defensive skills.
Eaton’s injury forced Michael A. Taylor into a familiar position: Taking over early in the season as the Nationals’ starting center fielder. Unlike the previous two years when he struggled to find a consistent rhythm at the plate, this time Taylor seized the opportunity and enjoyed a breakthrough campaign.
Cutting down on his stroke and looking to drive the ball to center and right fields with more regularity, Taylor emerged as a legitimate force near the bottom of the lineup and was one of the few members of the team who stepped up and delivered big hits in the postseason. Now he’ll have to prove he can duplicate it, or even exceed it, in 2018.
It’s rare for a team to open spring training with two reserve outfield positions already locked in, but that’s probably where the Nationals stand with Howie Kendrick and Brian Goodwin. Kendrick, who signed a two-year deal as a free agent last month, returns to pick up where he left off during the second half of 2017. A second baseman through most of his career, he’s actually played more left field in recent years, and he figures to get playing time there again in 2018 when Eaton needs a day off.
Goodwin was another pleasant surprise last season, thrust into a prominent role because of the injuries and exceeding expectations. A late bloomer who was drafted way back in 2011, Goodwin’s production declined when he was forced into an everyday role but he looks like a solid fourth or fifth outfielder who can play any of the three positions.
There is one significant wild card that could shake up an otherwise simple outfield situation this spring: Victor Robles. The organization’s top prospect - and one of the sport’s top five prospects according to most rankings - turned plenty of heads when he debuted last September and even made the postseason roster. Robles no doubt is the future, but general manager Mike Rizzo has said he will be an everyday player in 2018, no matter where he plays. Thus, the 20-year-old would need to have proven he deserves to start over Harper, Eaton or Taylor (or step in if one of them is injured) in order to make the team. If not, he’ll start the year at Triple-A Syracuse and be on speed dial for a promotion if and when he’s needed.
The Nationals have plenty more outfield depth beyond the aforementioned. Rafael Bautista and Andrew Stevenson each made his major league debut last summer and figure to be summoned at some point this season. And veteran Ryan Raburn, who performed admirably before suffering a strained trapezius muscle, will be back in camp this spring as a non-roster invitee.