Adam Eaton Forces The Nationals to Make Another Big Decision

In some ways, the Nationals just finished up a great week. In the last seven days, they scored 77 runs, running a team batting line of .355/.423/.649 and a wRC+ of 175. For reference, Mike Trout’s best single-season wRC+ is 176. If you wanted to know what a line-up of nine Mike Trouts would look like, it would look something like the Nationals line-up of last week.

But beyond the results on the field, the Nationals had a terrible week, as on Friday, Adam Eaton’s knee gave out running through a close play at first base, and the postgame diagnosis confirmed the worst; a torn ACL that will sideline him for the rest of the season. The Nationals’ big winter acquisition, and one that cost them a significant chunk of the upper-levels of their farm system, Eaton was off to a strong start at the plate and had helped the team to a commanding early lead in the NL East.

Now, though, the team is roughly back to where they were at the beginning of last winter, with enough talent to see themselves as legitimate contenders, but with enough holes to not necessarily be seen as a favorite when October rolls around. As we noted before the season began, the Nationals have a depth problem, and so with Eaton on the shelf, the team will now turn to Michael Taylor and his career 69 wRC+ to hold down center field for at least the next few months. Taylor’s probably not a guy you want to be starting in October, and having him as the starting CF means he can’t fill in for Jayson Werth, who may remember that he’s 38 at any moment.

Given the team’s current options, it’s entirely possible that they could end up starting not only Taylor, but also Chris Heisey, in some important playoff games, and while the top of the line-up is pretty great, you don’t really want to be starting multiple guys of this ilk in October. And if any of the infielders get hurt, you’re tossing in a Stephen Drew here or a Wilmer Difo there, and a vaunted line-up can quickly start to look pretty thin.

So, the natural reaction to Eaton’s injury would be to make a trade to fill the gap. The team saw center field as a big enough weakness to surrender Lucas Gilioto, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning six months ago, so they probably shouldn’t be willing to roll with the pre-Eaton status quo now. But making a deal is now more difficult than it was over the winter, and there’s a rational argument to be made that enough else has change to disincentivize the team from making another big all-in trade.

Let’s tackle that second point first. While it is certainly too early to be hatching any chickens, the Nationals strong start in April, combined with a pretty disastrous first month in New York, has significantly improved the team’s odds of making the postseason. While we saw the Nationals as the likely division winner on Opening Day, the Mets were a strong contender as well, and their presence left enough room for our forecasts to say that there was something like a 1-in-3 chance the Nationals wouldn’t win the NL East. As we stand here on May 1st, however, the 17-8 Nationals are already 6 1/2 games ahead of the 10-14 Mets, and the primary in-division challengers just saw their ace walk off the mound with an arm problem a few days after their best hitter was sent to the DL with a nagging hamstring issue.

So now, even without Eaton, the big early lead and the Mets health issues have combined to push the Nationals division odds up to 88%, so that 1-in-3 chance of not winning the division is now something like 1-in-9. The Nationals have a big enough cushion that they probably can run Taylor out there for the next five months and still win this thing, probably comfortably. So now, the question is more about how much you surrender to get a better player in the line-up in October.

Certainly, you want to put the best team on the field you can in order to give your team the best chance in the postseason, but the randomness of the playoffs can’t be understated. If you make another big trade for a center field upgrade, you’re hoping that the guy you acquire hits well for maybe 50 at-bats, and it can be a tough sell to give up a significant piece of the team’s future for the hope that you get a few good weeks out of a guy at the end of the year.

Which brings us to the difficulty of making a trade to begin with. Put simply, it doesn’t look like the market is teeming with potentially-available center fielders. Several rebuilding or potential sellers signed their center fielders to long-term extensions over the winter, taking Ender Inciarte, Odubel Herrera, and Kevin Kiermaier officially off the market. A few others who will likely be selling at the deadline have big weaknesses in CF too, as you’re not going to be hitting up teams like the White Sox for CF help.

Realistically, it looks like the best CF who is probably a good bet to get moved this summer is Lorenzo Cain. The Royals are off to a lousy 7-16 start, and with a bunch of guys heading into free agency this winter, they can’t afford to keep everyone together for the stretch run and hope a late-season revival makes up for their slow start. Cain wouldn’t replace Eaton at the plate, but he’s a better defender, and would put the the Nationals roughly back where they were in overall talent level before Eaton’s knee gave out.

But to land Cain, Mike Rizzo would have to outbid every other contender looking for a CF, and the Royals aren’t going to just give Cain away, given that he’s one of their best trade chips at the moment. And since the Eaton trade removed most of their high-level arms, you’re now looking at a small group of names that every other team is going to be asking for: Victor Robles, Juan Soto, and Erick Fedde, most likely. Eric ranked Robles as the #8 prospect in baseball before the season, so he should be off limits for a rental, but Soto and Fedde are both Top 100 material, and giving them up for a hoped-for October upgrade could also be a tough pill to swallow.

In the end, Rizzo and his staff will have to decide whether they want to push in as far as possible to try and win in the next two years, while they still have Bryce Harper around, or if they think they are better off trying to build a sustained winner even after Harper likely leaves. After all, it’s not like this a team clearly headed for a cliff where a win-at-all-costs posture is clearly correct. Trea Turner looks like a franchise player, Robles could be as well, and the team has long-term guarantees to Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Eaton is still around. They’ll still have Anthony Rendon in 2019. If the Nationals don’t give up a Robles or a Soto this summer, they could reasonably think that their window could extend past Harper’s time in Washington, especially if the money he might otherwise get is reallocated in free agency.

But that puts them right back where they’ve been the last few years; entering the postseason as a good-but-flawed team that probably would need some things to break their way to take down the Cubs or Dodgers in the playoffs. And after going out in the first round in three of the last five years, it’s only natural to want to avoid another early elimination because you gave the other team four easy outs a game by starting Michael Taylor in the postseason.

The May-September Nationals probably don’t need to replace Eaton. The rest of the team is good enough to likely hold on to their division lead, especially with the Mets in a somewhat chaotic state.

The October Nationals, however, could certainly use a guy like Cain, especially if he came along with a bullpen upgrade like Kelvin Herrera. But that’s not going to be a low-cost acquisition, and it’s not an easy call to give up big parts of the remaining farm system for the hope that these guys are significant upgrades in just a handful of games in the postseason. If you give up a Robles or a Soto to land another 2017 upgrade, in addition to what you already gave up to get Eaton, you’re probably setting yourself up for a rebuild after 2018, especially with Philadelphia and Atlanta poised to be contenders at that time.

Maybe it’s best to not worry about the future while you have a generational talent like Harper, and just try to push in on the next two years, accepting that there will be some losing seasons down the line. If you go out in the first round because Lorenzo Cain didn’t hit in October, well, at least you tried. But while a noble feeling, surrendering big parts of a team’s future for a bet on October performance alone remains a risky bet, and could set up the organization to have some long-term pain without any real guarantee of short-term benefit.

With the Eaton trade, the Nationals tried to thread the needle of contending both now and in the future. They gave up a lot to get him, but landed a young player with long-term control who could make them better without feeling like they sacrificed the future. Unless Kevin Pillar’s April power surge is for real, there doesn’t appear to be another Eaton-type out there, so this time, the Nationals will have to make a more clear choice. Do they push in on their Harper window, potentially sacrificing what’s left of the long-term future of the organization in the process, or try to make another playoff run with a good-not-great roster?

It’s not an obvious call. I think either decision could be defended, and since they have a big early lead, the organization can take a few months to see what Taylor can do, and whether he can convince them to not make a big trade for a CF in July. But if he’s just the Michael Taylor we’ve seen the last few years, it’s going to be tough for the team to feel comfortable with their outfield headed into the postseason, and if the Royals sweeten the pot with a guy like Herrera, it might be too tempting to avoid giving the team their best chance to win while Harper is still launching home runs in the nation’s capitol.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

That is an awesome first paragraph.

6 years ago
Reply to  jruby

The following paragraphs not so much.

If you have concluded that a “generational player” is not going to be with your team beyond his age 26 season shouldn’t your primary focus be to plan for that outcome so you are not buried in last place following the known departure?

If the Commissioner ruled that it was in the “Best Interests of Baseball” for Mike Trout to be in the postseason and gave the second wildcard to the Angels, would anyone expect the Angels to win the World Series?

The “generational player” concept also includes longevity in the concept. If seven years is all the team is going to get then they shouldn’t be thinking of him as a “generational player”.

The Adam Eaton trade was a good one when it was made both for now, because Eaton will be a Nat after the “generational player” departs and because those pitchers were not as good as they were hyped to be.

Dealing Bryce Harper’s Walk Year for good prospects would make more sense than emptying the farm. You’re talking about emptying the farm, dooming the team to losing after 2018 while being saddled with the contracts of Scherzer and Strasburg.

6 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

So you’re saying you’re not a Yankee fan.