When the season comes to a close, the Nationals will be issued a challenge unique to this year but one every team will have to overcome: making long-term roster decisions based on a fraction of the data they’re used to having.
Perhaps the most significant of those decisions will be the one surrounding Adam Eaton’s future. The veteran outfielder has a $10.5 million team option for 2021, giving the Nationals the opportunity to determine whether Eaton will be their everyday right fielder next season.
Based on his 2020 numbers alone, Eaton hasn’t shown he’s capable of hitting at the top of the lineup like he has in years past. However, his 40-game sample size is small enough to be chalked up as nothing more than a slump — albeit an extended one — in a normal season. Even so, the Nationals must still decide whether Eaton’s struggles are enough to give them pause about making him their highest-paid position player next season (barring a hefty raise for Trea Turner in arbitration).
“I spent an hour with him last night after the game, just chatting about different stuff,” manager Davey Martinez said in a Zoom press conference Sept. 3. “We watched some video and stuff. He seems like he is in a good place. But he takes every at-bat to heart and he wants to do well for his teammates, that’s just who he is. I told him, ‘Hey, just relax, have fun.’”
Eaton’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a metric used to determine how lucky or unlucky a player has been, sits at .260 entering play Thursday. That’s way down from his career average of .332. However, he’s striking out more and walking less than he typically does, suggesting he’s not seeing the ball as well as he normally does.
In 2019, when he played a full season for the first time in three years, Eaton hit the ball harder than he ever had in his career. Yet FanGraphs pegged his weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a sabermetric statistic used to measure how much better or worse a player has been at the plate compared to the average hitter — at just 107, or seven percent better than the average hitter. Defensively, he hasn’t been considered an above-average outfielder since 2016.
With expensive 2021 salaries for Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin coupled with a looming possible extension for Turner, the Nationals may decide the money is best spent elsewhere. Even at his best, Eaton isn’t a middle-of-the-order bat capable of complementing Juan Soto—an area the Nationals should be looking to address this offseason.
The two top free agent position players on the market this winter will be Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto and Astros outfielder George Springer. Though Realmuto may be the better fit, Springer could be a target for the Nationals should they fall short on landing the All-Star catcher. By declining Eaton’s option, the Nationals would free up money and a spot in the outfield that could both go to Springer.
Washington has used Eaton primarily in the No. 2 spot, but that’s an area they could afford to sacrifice some production out of in order to focus on a true area of need: cleanup hitter. As right-handed power hitters, Springer and Realmuto would be natural fits to slot in behind Soto. The Nationals could then turn to 22-year-old center fielder Victor Robles, who’s been groomed to eventually move up to the top of the order and could take over if Washington feels he’s ready.
After four seasons in Washington and a strong performance in last fall’s World Series, Eaton has proven to be a valuable asset both on the field and in the clubhouse. But even on a team-friendly deal, Eaton may have priced himself out of the Nationals’ comfort zone.