Eaton should be healthier in 2019, but Nats still face decision

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Adam Eaton, who was briefly sidetracked in his return from a major leg injury but wound up healthy and productive by season’s end.

PLAYER REVIEW: ADAM EATON

Age on opening day 2019: 30

How acquired: Traded from White Sox for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning, December 2016

MLB service time: 6 years, 30 days

2018 salary: $6 million

Contract status: Signed for $8.4 million in 2019. Nationals hold $9.5 million option (or $1.5 million buyout) in 2020 and $10.5 million option (or $1.5 million buyout) in 2021.

2018 stats: 95 G, 370 PA, 319 AB, 55 R, 96 H, 18 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 33 RBI, 9 SB, 1 CS, 38 BB, 64 SO, .301 AVG, .394 OBP, .411 SLG, .805 OPS, -4 DRS, 1.9 fWAR, 1.1 bWAR

Quotable: “I expect Adam Eaton to come back in 2019 like he was in 2016. He’s gotten better. There’s been days where I can tell he’s slowed down a little bit and it’s because of his injury. He even says this winter is going to mean a lot to him. He’s going to get ready, and hopefully in 2019, he’s going to put all this injury stuff aside and be the player that he was in 2016.” - Davey Martinez

2018 analysis: It was easy at the outset to take Eaton’s recovery from a torn ACL and sprained ankle for granted, because he opened the season with such authority - 8-for-13 with two doubles and two homers in the Nationals’ three-game sweep at Cincinnati - that you couldn’t help but go gaga over how much difference he could make for an entire season.

Eaton-Hits-White-Day-Sidebar.jpgBut there were signs from the beginning that Eaton wasn’t 100 percent healed. And sure enough, only nine games in, he was placed back on the disabled list with what the team believed was a bone bruise in his left ankle. One month later, the true injury was finally discovered: a flap of cartilage that had come loose since his original surgery and was causing significant pain when he tried to run.

Eaton at last returned healthy on June 9, and he immediately was a productive hitter again. His batting average never dipped below .282 and remained close to .300 throughout the season. His on-base percentage never dipped below .357 and remained above .380 most of the summer and fall.

But it still wasn’t difficult to tell this wasn’t the absolute best version of Eaton. He didn’t always move comfortably in right field or on the bases. He hit more singles and fewer doubles and only one triple. He needed regular days off, until September (when he started 17 of 20 games during one stretch). When the season ended, there was plenty to like about him. And plenty to like about how much better he might be another year removed from surgery.

2019 outlook: It took a lot of time and effort for Eaton to keep himself healthy enough to take the field as much as he did this season. But he took pride in his ability to do it and to feel stronger in September than he did in June or July. A full offseason should do him wonders and allow him to report for spring training in the best shape he’s been in since his 2017 surgery.

We’ve seen glimpses of the player Eaton can be when he’s healthy. He’s a dynamic leadoff man, a true pest at the plate who works the count, gets on base at a high clip, and plays with an infectious energy and enthusiasm. But are we sure he still has the best version of him in there somewhere?

It’s possible Eaton will return as fast, agile and durable as he was pre-injury. But it’s also possible he’s never going to be that complete player again as he enters his 30s. If nothing else, his defensive drop-off this season - even after moving back to his supposedly best position in right field - raised some red flags.

Then there’s this fundamental question facing the Nationals: If they re-sign Bryce Harper, do they still have a place for Eaton? If Juan Soto is entrenched in left field and Victor Robles is the future in center field, where does that leave Eaton? General manager Mike Rizzo loves the guy, as evidenced by the hefty package of pitching prospects he sent the White Sox to acquire him. But Rizzo could face a tough decision this winter: Is the Nats’ best opportunity to win with or without Eaton in the everyday lineup?

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