The final countdown to spring training has arrived, so we’re spending the final days of the offseason counting down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with the return of two key regulars from major knee surgeries ...
One played the entire 2017 season, hobbled only at the very end by an injured knee that required surgery once the team was eliminated. The other played only four weeks in 2017, his debut in Washington abruptly halted by a nasty fall at first base that tore up his knee and required immediate reconstructive surgery.
Both will be among the most watched and scrutinized players in West Palm Beach, Fla., a pair of key lineup regulars now attempted to prove they not only are 100 percent healthy again but ready to return to the form that made them so valuable to the Nationals in the first place.
Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy suffered very different injuries to the same body part and underwent very different surgeries. But each will report to camp needing to show everyone that all is now well physically and there’s no reason to start worrying about availability for opening day.
Eaton most likely will draw the most attention, because the Nationals haven’t seen him in uniform, on the field, participating with everyone else since the ninth inning on April 28, when he landed awkwardly on first base trying to beat out a grounder to short and then crumpled to the ground in pain. The ACL in his left knee was completely torn, requiring a full reconstruction once the swelling went down. And the dynamic outfielder was left to endure through one of the longest and toughest rehabs in sport.
“Oh, it was brutal,” he said. “The worst year of my life, I think it’s safe to say. The longest summer of my life.”
Eaton rehabbed the entire season and by September had progressed to the point where he wouldn’t rule out a return sometime late in October - if the Nationals were still playing then. They, of course, weren’t, so everybody was left wondering, “What if?”
In the four months since, though, Eaton has been able to complete his rehab without a pressure-packed timetable. He has done everything he needs to do to be cleared for spring training: running, cutting, hitting. Now he just needs to put his knee to the test doing baseball activities every day and eventually playing in games.
An admitted bouncing ball of energy, Eaton has been raring to go for some time and wants to hit the ground running the moment camp begins. New manager Dave Martinez wants the 29-year-old to keep his eyes focused on the real prize, which comes six weeks later.
“The biggest thing is to kind of get him to realize that, hey, we want him ready for opening day,” Martinez said. “He’s going to get opportunities to play in spring training a lot, but we want him ready for opening day.”
It requires every ounce of will power in his 5-foot-8 body for Eaton to take the slow and steady track his manager seeks.
“Oh, yeah. Short man syndrome, without a doubt,” he said. “I want to be ready when everyone else is ready, for sure. ... It’s definitely a balance. I think he has the right mind frame. But with that being said, I’m going to push it. I want to be out there with the guys as soon as I can, and that’s the plan.”
Martinez has big plans for Eaton, having already named him the club’s leadoff hitter based on his track record for getting on base at a high clip. (Owner of a career .358 on-base percentage, he posted a career-best .393 mark before suffering his injury last season.)
There’s been no announcement yet where Murphy will bat in this lineup, but there’s no question it will be in a position of importance. The bigger question at this point is whether the veteran second baseman will be playing at all come opening day following his October microfracture and debridement surgery on his left knee.
Though club officials have expressed optimism throughout that Murphy will be good to go March 29 in Cincinnati, they haven’t been able to say that for sure yet. The 32-year-old second baseman, who was still walking with the aid of crutches at Winterfest in December, will have much to prove this spring and probably will be playing catch-up to his teammates.
“It’s going to be a progression,” he said during that visit to D.C. two months ago. “I don’t want to put any timetables on it, because if you miss ‘em, you guys get really fishy when stuff like that happens.”
Much of the uncertainty stems from the fact that very few baseball players have had this particular procedure, which is more common in basketball. Murphy hopes to follow the lead of his former Mets teammate, Justin Turner, who two years ago had the same surgery around the same time and proceeded to put together a monster season for the Dodgers. He’ll hope not to bear any resemblance to Grady Sizemore, whose promising career with the Indians was forever derailed by several knee surgeries (including this microfracture procedure).
The Nationals will be cautious with Murphy, in part because of the depth they have at second base. Either Howie Kendrick or Wilmer Difo could step in and play every day to begin the season and more than hold his own. Neither, however, can match Murphy’s offensive prowess.
Whether he returns in March, April, May or sometime after that, Murphy does still face a legitimate question: At his age, will he be the same player post-surgery that he was pre-surgery, especially in the field? Admittedly far from a Gold Glove second baseman, the challenge will get only more difficult trying to cover ground and make quick cuts on a surgically repaired knee.
For now, the Nationals will continue to hope for the best, both with Murphy and Eaton. They’ve waited a long time to have both of these key players back healthy and on the field. They’re about to find out for sure where each player stands.