What should Nats prioritize in search for new corner outfielder?

We've talked for weeks about the Nationals' need for a new corner outfielder, and that need officially became official Tuesday when Adam Eaton (surprisingly?) returned to the White Sox four years after they traded him to Washington in one of the most significant trades in club history.

The Nats, of course, could've retained Eaton had they picked up his $10.5 million option for 2021. They chose not to, and that decision revealed the following about them: 1) They didn't believe the 32-year-old was worth that salary, and 2) They feel they need an upgrade at his position.

What, though, are the Nationals looking to upgrade specifically? What quality or qualities do they need their new corner outfielder to possess that exceed Eaton's skills?

(One quick note here: We're referring to this to-be-named player as a corner outfielder, not a right fielder, because it's entirely possible Juan Soto will be shifting positions in 2021 and the team will be adding a left fielder instead.)

Here's one seemingly obvious desire the Nationals have: They need their new corner outfielder to hit for more power than Eaton did.

Washington's right fielders (primarily Eaton) posted a combined .713 OPS this season. That ranked 19th out of 30 major league clubs, well below the overall average mark of .778. Ideally, their new outfielder would be capable of producing an OPS of at least .800.

And before you argue it's not fair to base this on 2020 stats because the season was only 60 games, we'll point out that even with Eaton healthy and productive in 2019, Nationals right fielders ranked 20th in the majors with a .767 OPS, below the overall average mark of .801.

Fact is, corner outfielders typically are expected to hit for power. That's not Eaton's profile, but the Nationals were able to compensate for it by getting better-than-average power from their shortstops, third basemen and catchers in 2019. Given the current makeup of their lineup, they're probably going to need a more traditional offensive corner outfielder in 2021.

But there's also another area in which the Nats probably want to improve at that position: Defense. Their right fielders ranked dead last in the majors (tied with the Marlins) this year with minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved. (It wasn't nearly as much a problem in 2019, when they tied for 17th with minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved.)

The Nationals as a team were atrocious in the field this season, and that's going to be a major point of emphasis this winter and next spring. So you've got to assume they're going to want Eaton's eventual replacement to be an upgrade defensively. (This could very well rule out Marcell Ozuna being a top Nats target, especially if the National League doesn't use the DH in 2021.)

It's at this point some of you out there are screaming: "What about Andrew Stevenson?" It's a valid question, but please keep your voice down when asking it.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Slaps-Stevenson-Hands-White-Sidebar.jpgIn the limited amount of time we've seen him in the lineup the last two seasons, Stevenson has looked more than capable of being a productive hitter who gets on base at a high clip and plays above-average defense. If anything, he's looked like a comparable - or perhaps even better - version of Eaton.

Can't the Nationals think about giving Stevenson the job? Yes, they can. But if they go that route, they almost certainly have to make a significant upgrade at some other position: third base, first base or catcher. They can't afford to go into 2021 with Stevenson, Carter Kieboom, Ryan Zimmerman and Yan Gomes all in their regular lineup, not if they intend to score enough runs to win a lot of games. That's too many uncertainties.

In the end, the simplest move for the Nationals is to acquire a power-hitting corner outfielder who's at least adequate in the field. Whether they can actually pull off that key transaction might just be the biggest question of the winter.

Note: The Nationals on Tuesday laid off 18 full-time employees from their business operations staff in a cost-cutting move the organization said was "due to the impact COVID-19 continues to have on our business." The layoffs impacted the club's sales, marketing and ballpark operations units.

"This decision was incredibly difficult for our organization," the team said in a statement. "Those impacted by the layoffs will receive a severance package including six months of health insurance coverage and other employee assistance. Recognizing that the staff remaining will have to take on additional responsibilities and work harder to keep the relationship with our fans going strong as we head into another uncertain year, we will end the partial furlough and restore business side employees to their full salaries for 2021."

The Nationals said Tuesday's layoffs eliminated approximately 7.5 percent of their full-time business operations staff. In addition to those cuts, they also said they plan to eliminate the majority of open positions they previously planned to fill in the coming months.

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