Inbox: Could Nats deal Eaton if Harper returns?

Beat reporter Jamal Collier answers questions from fans

October 8th, 2018

WASHINGTON -- There are so many questions the Nationals will have to answer this offseason as they look to build themselves back into a contender after missing the postseason in 2018. Most of them revolve around and whether the team re-signs him, which would have a huge impact on how the rest of Washington's offseason plays out.
Re-sign Harper, and all of a sudden, the Nats are working with an excess of outfielders and would be free to deal some of those players to fill other needs. If Harper walks, then Washington can use the salary it had planned for him to fill other needs.
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To help sort out the myriad of questions facing Washington this offseason, the Nationals Inbox will be a regular feature this offseason, starting today with fans wondering what happens to the other outfielders on the roster not named Harper or prized young players like Juan Soto or .

How the Nationals handle their potentially crowded outfield will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the offseason. If Harper returns, it would free Washington to potentially explore trading some of its other outfielders. If you pencil in Harper and Soto, the Nationals have three other Major League-caliber outfielders in Eaton, Robles and Michael A. Taylor. Robles would be the most attractive trade chip because of his age (21) and prospect pedigree. But would Washington explore trading Eaton?
On one hand, it makes sense. Eaton is signed through 2019 with affordable team options for '20 and '21, so his contract would be an enticing trade option for most teams. And it would allow Washington to keep its two true center fielders in Robles and Taylor to go with Harper and Soto as corner outfielders. However, Eaton will turn 30 in December, has been limited to 118 games over the past two seasons because of knee and ankle injuries that will likely reduce him to a corner-outfield role in the future. It's very likely his trade value is at one of its lowest points. Perhaps a team will still value Eaton as heavily as the Nationals did when they acquired him in December 2016, but he might have to prove he can remain healthy for a full season before teams are willing to deal major pieces for him.

That brings us to Taylor, who endured a setback in his standing with the team last season. A year ago, Taylor was Washington's breakout postseason star, a finalist for a National League Gold Glove Award in 2017 and ready to be the Nats' Opening Day center fielder for the first time. But he struggled mightily at the plate through the first two months of the season, and even though he got hot in June, he struggled to find playing time behind Harper, Soto and Eaton. That made him the odd man out for much of the second half, and he was bumped further down the depth chart when Robles was called up in September.
I'm guessing the Nats will look into trade options for Taylor this offseason, especially if Harper re-signs. While Taylor can be a stellar fourth outfielder, it might be time to strike before his value further dips and deal him in an effort to address one of the team's other holes. A change of scenery and fresh start could be best for the 27-year-old.

Exactly who the Nats' targets will be this offseason is unclear because of some uncertain factors surrounding their pursuit of starting pitching, which will be a priority this offseason after their rotation faltered last season. First off, everything depends on Harper. If they sign Harper to a large deal, perhaps they would rather find a front-line starting pitcher through a trade instead of in free agency. If Harper signs elsewhere, they could use that money to sign one of the premier free-agent starters.
With the departure of , Washington has been connected to left-handed starters such as of the D-backs in free agency, but I would focus more on the quality of pitcher instead of what hand he throws with. I could also see the Nats exploring deals for bounce-back starting pitching candidates similar to .

Washington has basically done this in each of the past three seasons by rostering a left-handed complement for Zimmerman at first base -- Clint Robinson in 2016, in '17 and Matt Adams last season. I'd anticipate something similar next season. Once Zimmerman got healthy following the All-Star break, he posted a .911 OPS in the second half. He and the team will continue to repeat that when he's healthy he has produced. But they also understand at 34-years old has an extensive injury history, so Zimmerman will be treated with care. Expect the team to find someone to help lighten his workload next season.

Finding a second baseman would be high on my priority list for Washington. is 35 and coming off a torn right Achilles, so it would be wise to not count on him in an everyday role. has had hot streaks but never sustained success at the plate, and the organization will not want to rush Carter Kieboom, their No. 2 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, who still has not played second base professionally.