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Nats face roster decision as Eaton nears return

Outfielder set to begin rehab assignment Friday
MLB.com @JamalCollier

BALTIMORE -- There has been a noticeable extra hop in Adam Eaton's step each day since he resumed working out on his surgically repaired left ankle. He has run sprints and taken batting practice on the field each day during the Nationals' three-game series against the Orioles. Now, he is ready to take the next step.

Eaton will begin a Minor League rehab assignment on Friday. Although manager Dave Martinez said where Eaton was headed would depend on weather, he is expected to play three games at Double-A Harrisburg and then three with Class A Advanced Potomac, increasing his playing time until he is eligible to return from the disabled list on June 8.

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BALTIMORE -- There has been a noticeable extra hop in Adam Eaton's step each day since he resumed working out on his surgically repaired left ankle. He has run sprints and taken batting practice on the field each day during the Nationals' three-game series against the Orioles. Now, he is ready to take the next step.

Eaton will begin a Minor League rehab assignment on Friday. Although manager Dave Martinez said where Eaton was headed would depend on weather, he is expected to play three games at Double-A Harrisburg and then three with Class A Advanced Potomac, increasing his playing time until he is eligible to return from the disabled list on June 8.

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"He's tough to monitor," Martinez said with a laugh. "He wants to play nine innings tomorrow. So we'll just have to keep an eye on him and take it slow. We're at the breaking point right now though. He's itching to get back but he knows -- stick with the process."

Eaton, who has not played since April 8, required arthroscopic surgery to remove cartilage in his left ankle. He was electric in the first eight games of the season as he recovered from a torn left ACL, but ultimately he was not 100 percent. So, despite Eaton's improvement and enthusiasm, the Nats will almost certainly build up his playing time slowly to ensure he is fully healthy.

Worth watching will also be where Eaton plays defensively, as Martinez said he will get reps in both left and center field.

Eaton started the season as the Nationals' starting left fielder, but rookie sensation Juan Soto has been excellent in left since his promotion and might be earning a permanent spot in the Majors. Bryce Harper is entrenched in right field, and while Michael A. Taylor has struggled at the plate, he is an elite defensive center fielder. Brian Goodwin, who began the season as the Nats' fourth outfielder, is close to returning from a left wrist injury. So, the Nationals have a potential logjam brewing in the outfield.

"We haven't really thought about it yet," Martinez said, "just because he's not back. As he gets closer we'll start playing around with it and see what's best for us."

Soto batting leadoff
Soto sat at his locker, wearing small white ear buds, staring into his phone as his manager approached him in the Nationals' clubhouse. Martinez had purposely not given Soto a heads up prior to the game about his plan to hit the 19-year old rookie leadoff for Wednesday's game against the Orioles.

Soto could not recall ever batting leadoff in his life, not even as a kid. So, he was excited for the chance and got some brief words of encouragement from Martinez.

"I didn't want him to start thinking about things," Martinez said. "I just wanted him to go out there and play and I told him, 'Hey after the first at-bat it's just another at-bat so just go out there and play and have fun like you've been doing.'"

Martinez said he liked the idea of hitting Soto leadoff because of the matchup against right-hander David Hess. It's another tall task for Soto, who has cleared a bunch of them lately. About a month ago he was starting for Potomac. On Tuesday, he went 3-for-3, was issued his first intentional walk and collected his first stolen base.

Video: WSH@BAL: Soto gets on base 4 times, earns first steal

Now, he becomes the first teenager since Andruw Jones in 1996 to bat leadoff in the Majors.

"Keep doing my thing, looking for fastballs and be aggressive," Soto said. "If I'm leading off, I see more fastballs, less offspeeds so that's better."

Martinez would not commit to keeping Soto in the leadoff spot long term, but the manager thought, "Why not?" and was willing to see how Soto responded.

"We all know he's 19, but he plays the game like he's been around for a while," Martinez said. "We'll see how it plays out. I know he's never done it before, but I thought he'll get some pitches to hit, he'll get on base if he keeps doing what he's doing. So we'll see how it works out."

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

Washington Nationals, Adam Eaton