Nationals outfield returns intact, with room for growth

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 ...

The Nationals infield may be chock full of questions entering spring training, but the guys who will line up behind them are firmly locked into place.

All three starting outfielders - plus the primary backups - from last season return. And there’s every reason to believe that group will be highly productive again, with room for growth.

Soto-Tracks-Homer-White-Sidebar.jpgWith Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon gone, there’s no doubt who anchors the Nats lineup now. It’s Juan Soto, who has done everything the club could have asked of him through his first two big league seasons and now stands poised to become one of baseball’s biggest stars.

What has the young left fielder done since reaching the major leagues in May 2018? How about a .403 on-base percentage and .535 slugging percentage, a combination only four others have produced (Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman). And remember, Soto did all of that before reaching his 21st birthday. The only other player in major league history to put up those numbers before turning 21? Mel Ott, who racked up a .963 OPS for the New York Giants from 1926-29.

Oh, and have we mentioned Soto also was a Gold Glove Award finalist last season? There’s admittedly still room for improvement in that regard, but his progress defensively has been eye-opening and serves as further reminder how hard the kid works. He’s not just doing this on pure talent alone.

Soto has set the bar so high, we may be guilty of underappreciating Victor Robles’ rookie campaign in center field. So let’s take a moment to appreciate what he did. Handed the starting job at 22, Robles hit 17 homers with 33 doubles, 86 runs and 28 stolen bases, most of which came while batting eighth or even ninth in the Nationals’ lineup. Here’s the list of major leaguers who equaled that combination of power and speed in 2019: Trea Turner and Jonathan Villar.

Oh, and have we mentioned Robles also was a Gold Glove Award finalist, and more importantly rated as the best defensive player in the majors (excluding catchers) in two metrics: Defensive Runs Saved and Defensive WAR?

Yes, Robles still needs to work on his consistency at the plate. He needs to get better at laying off pitches out of the zone. He needs to display the kind of patience that allowed him to maintain a .392 on-base percentage during his minor league career. But if 2019 was merely a taste of what he has to offer, there’s every reason to believe he’ll continue to get better in 2020.

The two exciting kids will again be joined in the Nationals outfield by the wily veteran in right field. Adam Eaton came to D.C. three years ago with lofty expectations, considering what general manager Mike Rizzo gave the White Sox (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo L√≥pez, Dane Dunning) to acquire him. Those first two years offered a glimpse of Eaton’s skills, but the major knee and ankle injuries he suffered early in 2017 prevented him from putting it all on display for any length of time.

Finally healthy the entire 2019 season, Eaton did put it all together and reminded everyone why he was so coveted in the first place. He produced a .365 on-base percentage, set career highs with 103 runs and 15 homers and totaled 47 extra-base hits. On top of that, he showed a real knack for delivering high-quality at-bats in key moments during the postseason (when he was able to resist the urge to try to bunt).

Eaton won’t make any finalist lists for Gold Glove Awards, but he still proved to be an effective right fielder by season’s end, perhaps confident at last in the structural integrity of his surgically repaired leg.

If the three regulars stay healthy, there won’t be a whole lot of opportunities for others to get playing time. But the presence of Michael A. Taylor on the bench once again will leave club officials confident they can get by for a while if anyone does get hurt. It was an odd 2019 for Taylor, who struggled mightily at the plate early on, was demoted and spent the bulk of the year with Double-A Harrisburg, then was thrust back into the spotlight in October when Robles was banged up. Naturally, he reinforced his reputation as a postseason star, hitting .333 (7-for-21) with two homers.

There’s one major difference with Taylor this season, though: He’s now out of minor league options, so he must remain on the big league roster or else clear waivers (which almost certainly wouldn’t happen). That fact could make it really difficult for Andrew Stevenson to head north with the club, even though the 25-year-old consistently delivered when called upon last season. Stevenson hit .367 (11-for-30) with a .486 on-base percentage and reached base in an impressive 14 of 25 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

Among the additional outfielders who will be in camp this spring is Emilio Bonifacio, the 34-year-old utility man who is attempting to return the majors after two seasons spent playing in Triple-A, the Dominican Republic and independent ball.

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