As spring training fast approaches, it’s time to break down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series concludes today with the outfield ...
You would think that, with only six shopping days left until pitchers and catchers report, the Nationals would have long since known which three outfielders would be taking the field for opening day 2019. You, of course, would be wrong.
Sure, the Nats have prepared all along to enter the coming season without Bryce Harper. But as the clock ticks down on a most unusual offseason, there remains at least some possibility the free agent slugger will be staying in D.C. after all.
Such a development, which club officials always deemed unlikely, would send a pretty big shock wave through Washington and the entire baseball world. It would give the Nationals a projected opening day outfield to rival any other in the sport: Juan Soto in left, Victor Robles in center, Harper in right.
It’s OK to dream about the possibility, but it’s also important to recognize the odds remain stacked against it. One of these days, Harper is going to make his decision at long last. And the safer bet still has him going somewhere else. That’s just simple math talk, folks. Yes, there’s a chance he stays, but it’s less than a 50-50 chance, right?
Even if Harper departs, the Nationals are well-positioned to move forward. No, it won’t be a dream outfield, but it still should be an awfully good one.
That’s because Soto is a lock to return following a sensational rookie season that turned the kid into the talk of baseball. Promoted from low Single-A to high Single-A to Double-A to the majors in the span of a month, Soto had an inaugural season for the ages. He hit .292. He reached base at a .406 clip. He slugged .517. He showed off remarkable plate discipline and offensive approach at the ripe age of 19. And he exuded confidence throughout, suggesting he was never overwhelmed by the situation.
Soto won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year, and pitchers have had some time to try to devise a plan of attack against him. It’ll be up to the 20-year-old to make the necessary adjustments. But if his rookie season was evidence not only of his pure skill but of his ability to learn on the fly, there’s little reason to think he won’t be up for the challenge.
Though it’s reasonable to project Robles as the opening day center fielder, that is far from a sure thing at this point. The organization’s top offensive prospect, he has all the tools to be a star at the big league level. He has impressed in a couple of September call-ups. And, like Soto, he’s not lacking in confidence. (He has even more swagger than his fellow Dominican native.)
But Robles is assured of nothing yet, and he’ll need to prove he’s ready for the job this spring. That means not only eye-catching performances at the plate and in the field, but perhaps more important a display of consistency that suggests he’s ready to deal with the long grind of a big league season.
If, for whatever reason, club officials determine Robles needs more seasoning, they have a ready-made replacement on the bench in Michael A. Taylor. It was a disappointing 2018 for Taylor, who for the first time in his career opened the season in the everyday lineup but didn’t seize the opportunity and wound up wasting away on the bench for most of August and September.
Taylor’s defensive prowess in center field has never been questioned. But his offensive approach simply must be better if he’s going to force his way into the lineup. Taylor spent the second half of the season (and the winter while he played in the Dominican Republic) trying to implement swing changes proposed by hitting coach Kevin Long. It’s time for him to show he can actually implement those changes into positive results in real games.
How does Adam Eaton figure into this whole equation? Well, if Harper leaves, the right field job is his. If Harper stays ... it gets complicated. This much is clear: The Nationals really like Eaton, they have always liked him and they believe he is best suited on this roster to bat leadoff every day.
We’ve seen more than a glimpse of Eaton’s abilities over the last two seasons; in 118 games with the Nats, he owns a .300/.394/.411 slash line, perfect for a leadoff man. And when he was on the field last year, he never looked a full 100 percent healthy, still recovering from major knee and ankle injuries suffered in April 2017. Eaton believes a nice winter of rest will set him up for a big season in which he can finally show off his entire game. We’ll see if he can live up to the hype.
Also coming back from a major leg injury is Howie Kendrick, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon in May. The hope all along has been for a full return to begin the coming season, but there’s no guarantee of that just yet. Many sets of eyes will be glued to Kendrick this spring, looking for evidence he’s all the way back or perhaps needs more time to complete his rehab. If healthy, he remains a potent offensive bat off the bench and occasional left fielder.
Andrew Stevenson is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster, and he’ll once again be ready for action if others go down. Stevenson is a gifted defensive outfielder who can play all three positions and has the ability to explode at the plate on any random night. Given the star power above him on the depth chart, it’s going to be difficult for him to find any kind of regular playing time unless something else goes really wrong. But the Nationals are happy to have him in the system, adding to their outfield depth.