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Game changer: Healthy Eaton ready to deliver

Nationals beginning to see what dynamic OF can do
@JamalCollier
March 23, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two years of battling injuries stemming from a torn ACL have limited Adam Eaton to just 118 games across his two seasons in D.C. When he has been on the field, fans have seen glimpses, albeit brief, of the kind of impact player the Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two years of battling injuries stemming from a torn ACL have limited Adam Eaton to just 118 games across his two seasons in D.C. When he has been on the field, fans have seen glimpses, albeit brief, of the kind of impact player the Nationals believe they acquired from the White Sox two winters ago. And all throughout Spring Training, the Nationals are beginning to see that player once again.

Eaton appears fully healthy, not hampered by the lingering effects of the torn ACL in his left knee from April 2017 or the ankle injury from the same day that required arthroscopic surgery last May. He has played in 15 Grapefruit League games this spring, about the same as the rest of the Nats’ starters, and has done so uninhibited or without requiring much extra maintenance.

In those games he has posted a slash line at .343/.489/.743 with 11 runs scored, a stolen base and eight of his 12 hits have gone for extra bases, including three home runs. That is the kind of production the Nationals imagined adding to the top of their lineup when they acquired him.

“I’m excited to see him healthy, general manger Mike Rizzo said. “When he’s healthy, I knew the player we were getting. I knew he was an elite player. He was an under-the-radar, under-appreciated elite player. He brought things to the lineup between the lineup that are hard to quantify. He brings stuff in the clubhouse, which is very hard to quantify.

“We’re just happy to see him back to being himself. A healthy Adam Eaton is a terrific player that is going to help us win a lot of championships.”

The key, of course, is to keep him healthy.

Eaton had been a pretty durable player in the seasons before he joined the Nats. In fact, his consistency in Chicago was part of the selling point of why Rizzo felt comfortable trading away three premier pitching prospects, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, to acquire him. That torn ACL at the end of April robbed Eaton of about a year in a half of his career, but the Nats believe those issues are finally behind him. Eaton believes it, too. He has raved about how healthy he feels and told manager Dave Martinez he is aiming to play 155 games this season.

“I said, 'Let’s just kind of worry about today,'” Martinez said. “And build on today.”

On Saturday, Martinez revealed he plans to slot Eaton as the team’s primary leadoff hitter with Trea Turner batting second. And when healthy, Eaton has offered a small glimpse of just how much he can change the Nationals lineup. He typically works deep into counts, fouls off tons of pitches and walks frequently. In his 410 at-bats with Washington, he has compiled a slash line of .300/.394/.422 with 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs.

He will also be 30 years old this season, coming off a pair of major surgeries. And yet, the Nats are confident he can return to the same level of production as before his injuries.

“He’s going to be the same guy playing with his hair on fire and diving all over the place,” Rizzo said. “He’s always got a dirty uniform. That’s who he is. That’s in his DNA. I don’t think we could change that if we wanted to. And we never want to do that.

“The injury derailed the world to see what Adam Eaton’s really all about. I think we’ve had glimpses of it. But this guy, healthy for 145-155 games, I think is going to really electrify the lineup, and I think he’s going to become a fan favorite.”

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.