SUNDAY: Rizzo confirmed Eaton’s ACL tear on Sunday, adding that he also suffered a torn meniscus and a high ankle sprain. Eaton will face a six- to nine-month recovery period after he undergoes surgery, which the Nats haven’t scheduled yet (Twitter links via Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post). For at least the time being, Rizzo expects to replace Eaton from within, noting that center field is one of the organization’s deepest positions.
SATURDAY: Nationals center fielder Adam Eaton suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on Friday and will miss the rest of the season, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (Twitter link). The injury occurred when Eaton beat out an infield single in the ninth inning of a 7-5 loss to the Mets. Eaton stepped on first base awkwardly and was then unable to put any weight on his left leg, forcing him to exit the game (video via MLB.com).
Entering Saturday, Eaton had been among the red-hot Nationals’ best players in his first month as a member of the club. The top-of-the-order hitter slashed an impressive .297/.393/.462 with two home runs and three steals across 107 plate appearances. In the process, the 28-year-old may have quelled some doubts about the Nationals’ decision to trade a significant haul to the White Sox for him over the winter.
Washington gave up three well-regarded pitching prospects, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, for Eaton, leading to widespread criticism of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. However, Eaton had been a terrific offensive player in Chicago over the previous three years, and he drew great marks for his defense in both the 2014 and ’16 campaigns. Further, Eaton carries an appealing contract, one that could max out at an eminently reasonable $38.4MM through the 2021 season.
It’s fair to say Rizzo’s plan for Eaton was to serve as a key cog for a potential championship contender as early as this season, and at 16-8, first-place Washington has looked the part thus far. But the loss of Eaton is undoubtedly a major blow to their roster, and it’s now unclear who will man center field going forward. For now, it’s Michael Taylor, though he has never resembled a big league regular over 814 career PAs. Both the Nationals’ best player, right fielder Bryce Harper, and shortstop Trea Turner have experience in center, but moving either from his current spot would lead to more questions. Other 40-man options to help fill Eaton’s void include Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista, the latter of whom the Nats promoted when they placed Eaton on the disabled list early Saturday. The club also has an elite center field prospect in Victor Robles, but he’s only 19 and has never played above the High-A level.
In the event Washington is unsatisfied with its own center fielders, it could go outside the organization for help. Pickings in free agency are slim, though, with the potentially retired Angel Pagan representing the best of a deeply flawed class of unsigned players. Notably, the Nationals aggressively pursued Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen via trade prior to landing Eaton, and the five-time All-Star could hit the block again this year if the Bucs don’t contend. However, the Nationals found the Pirates’ asking price for McCutchen to be prohibitive in the offseason. If the Nationals don’t look again to McCutchen, Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain could be a possibility, as the scuffling Royals are on track to sell off veterans this summer. The Nats already have interest in the Royals’ closer, Kelvin Herrera, and could perhaps attempt to reel in him and Cain in a package. That’s merely speculation, of course, and having already surrendered a prospect bounty for Eaton a few months ago, Rizzo might be reluctant to part with more high-end youngsters for another outfielder.