With Eaton nearing return, how will Nats configure outfield?

When the Nationals promoted Juan Soto from Double-A Harrisburg 18 days ago, which came only 10 days after he had been promoted from high-Single-A Potomac, which came only 17 days after he had been promoted from low-Single-A Hagerstown, they did so out of desperation.

Injuries to Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Brian Goodwin, Victor Robles and Rafael Bautista had ravaged the Nationals outfield, so much so that a 19-year-old with remarkably limited professional experience represented their best option at the time.

The Nats had no idea what to expect from Soto, and they were fully prepared to view this as a temporary fix until the injured - specifically, Eaton - were healthy again.

Well, that time has just about arrived. Eaton, who had arthroscopic surgery May 10 on his left ankle, has been rehabbing with Harrisburg and Potomac over the last week. He’s eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list Friday, and if he has his way he’ll be in the Nationals lineup against the Giants.

The Nationals could choose to be more cautious with Eaton, who after an 11-month rehab from an ACL tear played in only eight games before injuring his ankle. But whether it happens this weekend or sometime after, the move is going to happen in the near future.

At which point the Nats have to decide what, exactly, to do with Soto. Who, by the way, is batting .346 with a .443 on-base percentage and .981 OPS, all of which lead the entire roster since his arrival.

Soto-Swings-White-Nats-Sidebar.jpgThe Nationals wouldn’t send the kid back down, would they? Not when he has shown a remarkable mastery of big league pitching, a keen eye at the plate (nine walks and nine strikeouts), the ability to hit left-handers (.350 average, two homers, four walks) and poise way beyond what anyone would expect from a 19-year-old who was in low-Single-A six weeks ago.

But, as both general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez have insisted all along, if Soto’s in the big leagues, he must play on a regular basis. They won’t stunt his development by having him come off the bench.

Which means the only way Soto stays is if someone else is removed from the lineup.

Which has led to speculation that Michael A. Taylor is about to lose his starting job in center field. Taylor’s offensive woes (67 strikeouts in 209 at-bats) have left one of the rising stars of 2017 on thin ice. Except for the fact he’s made significant improvements in recent weeks.

Since May 20, Taylor ranks second on the roster with a .293 batting average, .349 on-base percentage and six doubles. He leads the club during that span with 10 RBIs and a .569 slugging percentage.

“Mechanically, I feel good right now and settling into my approach,” he said.

Taylor’s Gold-Glove-caliber defense in center field has remained a constant all along, and it’s the reason Martinez has repeatedly cited in insisting Taylor’s job is safe.

That show of confidence has allowed Taylor to make his adjustments without fear of getting benched.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I think a big thing for me is not focusing on the results. Knowing I’m going to be in there the next day helps me go out there and just concentrate on swinging at good pitches and having quality at-bats.”

So if Soto isn’t going to be demoted, and if Taylor isn’t going to be benched, where does that leave the Nationals outfield? Eaton isn’t going to be the odd man out upon his return. And Bryce Harper ... well, that’s actually an interesting topic.

Though he continues to hit the ball out of the park and leads the National League with 18 homers, Harper also continues to struggle at the plate in a broader sense. In that same span since Soto was promoted May 20, he’s batting .230 with a .304 on-base percentage. His five homers allow him to sport a .508 slugging percentage, but he’s striking out at a staggering rate (27 in 61 at-bats, compared to Taylor’s 14 in 58 at-bats).

Before we get any further here ... no, of course the Nationals aren’t going to bench Harper. He might get an extra day or two off along the way once there’s more outfield depth on the roster, but he is going to remain the starting right fielder.

But it’s notable that Harper has been the least productive of the group in recent weeks. And this team needs him to get back on track in short order.

For the first time in a long time, the Nationals are about to get a key injured regular back in their lineup. That doesn’t mean their lineup decisions are going to get any easier, though.

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