Nearly four years to the day after the Nationals acquired Adam Eaton from the White Sox, the veteran outfielder returned to the same team that traded him to Washington at the 2016 Winter Meetings.
That leaves a vacancy atop the batting order and in the outfield, which includes starters Victor Robles and Juan Soto. Eaton appeared in 41 games this season, slashing .226/.285/.384 with a .988 fielding percentage. He played in 310 games for the Nats during his four-year tenure, in addition to their 2019 World Series run.
The Nationals have different avenues they could take to fill the open spot. It’s worth keeping in mind that it is not the only vacancy to address -- there are questions to be answered at first base, third base, catcher and in the rotation -- and the number of needs has to be taken into account when considering potential contract price tags.
There is the approach of replacing one right fielder with another. In looking at the rankings based on FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Eaton topped the free agents at the position with 1.9 WAR. He was followed by Cameron Maybin (1.8), Hunter Renfroe (1.5), Yasiel Puig (1.2) and Tyler Naquin (1.1). Renfroe, the 13th overall pick in the 2013 Draft, is looking to bounce back from his .156 batting average in 2020 and carry the momentum of belting the first postseason grand slam in the Rays’ history during the American League Wild Card Series.
On the other hand, just because Eaton was Washington’s primary starting right fielder doesn’t mean it has to make a copy-and-paste move. The club began exploring its defensive flexibility toward the end of the 2020 season when it shifted Soto from left to right for six games (eight putouts, zero errors over 43 innings). The 22-year-old previously had made 107 starts in right field in the Minor Leagues, and he said in September, “It’s really nice to be out there again and try to feel like my first year in Rookie ball.”
The late-season move raised eyebrows -- Soto had been a Gold Glove Award finalist in left field in 2019. Could this be a sign of things to come for the Nationals in free agency? The fact that people might wonder so was brought up to manager Dave Martinez at the time.
“It could be a possibility,” Martinez said with a laugh. “Use your imagination.”
So if the thought of Soto playing right field is being pondered, let’s take a look at some of the options on the market. Twelve-year veteran Michael Brantley has the highest WAR (5.5) of free-agent left fielders. He slashed .300/.364/.476 last season with the Astros. Joc Pederson (3.0 WAR) bounced back from batting .190 in the regular season by hitting .382 with a .991 OPS during the Dodgers' World Series run. Kyle Schwarber (3.0 WAR), Eddie Rosario (2.1) and Adam Duvall (1.3) also are intriguing players who became available at the non-tender deadline.
While on the topic of versatility, there are free-agent center fielders who can man right, too. George Springer (8.4 WAR) has played 534 games in right field. In 2020, the three-time All-Star slashed .265/.359/.540 with 14 home runs and received votes for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Jackie Bradley Jr. (2.8 WAR) also has spent time in right field. The '18 AL Gold Glove Award winner in center, he has head-turning athleticism and improved offensively this past season (.814 OPS up from .738).
One offseason change has opened up an outfield full of possibilities for the Nationals in 2021.