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Will Eaton's return provide big lift for Nats?

Outfielder hopes to pick up where he left off before tearing ACL
MLB.com @basebollie

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made three key moves this offseason by signing slugger Matt Adams and reuniting with utility man Howie Kendrick and reliever Brandon Kintzler. The return of outfielder Adam Eaton, however, could ultimately prove to be Washington's biggest addition.

The Nationals' offense erupted last season for a Major League-leading 170 runs in April, an average of 6.80 runs per game, and more than a run better than the next-highest team over that span (Yankees, 5.57).

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made three key moves this offseason by signing slugger Matt Adams and reuniting with utility man Howie Kendrick and reliever Brandon Kintzler. The return of outfielder Adam Eaton, however, could ultimately prove to be Washington's biggest addition.

The Nationals' offense erupted last season for a Major League-leading 170 runs in April, an average of 6.80 runs per game, and more than a run better than the next-highest team over that span (Yankees, 5.57).

Who led Washington's early outburst? The newly acquired Eaton.

Rizzo's trade with the White Sox following the 2016 season -- bringing Eaton to Washington and sending pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to Chicago -- paid immediate dividends. The blockbuster addition batted .297/.393/.462 with two homers and 13 RBIs, while crossing the plate 24 times in his first 23 games.

Video: WSH@COL: Eaton smacks an RBI triple to center field

But on April 28, Eaton fell to the ground after legging out an infield single in the ninth inning of an eventual 7-5 loss to the Mets, the result of tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and ending his season.

The club still finished with the fifth-most runs scored in MLB for the year and clinched the National League East title before losing to the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. It was a solid season by many standards, but an overall disappointment for the World Series hopefuls.

It left many wondering: Would Eaton have been enough to push the club past the first round of the postseason? Ultimately, it's tough to say, though a fullly healthy Eaton could push the Nats over the top as they again look to contend in 2018.

• Eaton: Knee responding 'extremely well'

The 29-year-old was one of the more underrated players in baseball prior to his move to the nation's capital, registering 6.2 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in '16, which placed him fourth among MLB outfielders. He tallied consecutive 14-homer seasons, a significant uptick from the one he hit in his first full year as a big leaguer in '14.

Eaton's walk rate improved each year with the White Sox, beginning at 8 percent and finishing at 8.9 percent, and that number jumped to 13.1 percent during his month with the Nationals. Statcast™ data gives us a glimpse of how his heightened discipline at the plate could be a promising trend.

Eaton chased pitches out of the strike zone 14.5 percent of the time in '17, per Statcast™, well below the league average of 18.9 percent. It was a major upgrade from the 20.7 percent chase rate he recorded a season ago and it resulted in him reaching base at a .393 clip, more than 30 points higher than his average OBP with Chicago.

Video: WSH@COL: Eaton gets a hold of one, belts a solo homer

A large portion of his value was tied to his defense, too. A former center fielder, Eaton made the switch to right field in his last season with the White Sox and graded as one of the better defensive outfielders in the game. In 2016, Eaton compiled 18 Outs Above Average, a Statcast™ metric that accounts for the number of plays an outfielder makes -- or does not -- in addition to the difficulty of those plays. That number ranked third behind only the Reds' Billy Hamilton (24) and Braves' Ender Inciarte (22).

• How will the Nats' outfield situation play out?

The Nationals' outfield collectively combined for -7 OAA last year. They greatly missed Eaton's glove, and with Eaton in left, Michael A. Taylor in center and Bryce Harper in right, it's fair to expect a much better unit this season.

Highest Outs Above Average, 2016
Min. 25 opportunities
1. Billy Hamilton, 24
2. Ender Inciarte, 22
3. Adam Eaton, 18
4-T. Mookie Betts, 16
4-T. Kevin Kiermaier, 16

Video: WSH@NYM: Eaton makes a sliding catch to deny Rivera

Statcast™ tells us Eaton's speed is a legitimate asset. Not only does it help him cover ground in the field, but it also allows him to wreak havoc on the bases. Among players who recorded at least 10 "max effort" plays in 2017, Eaton's average sprint speed of 28.9 feet per second tied him for the 22nd-fastest player in MLB, and well above the league average of 27 feet per second (30 feet per second is elite).

The Nationals already ranked fifth in baseball with 108 steals a season ago. Eaton swiped a combined 47 bags in three seasons with the White Sox, but he showed the potential to run even more when he accumulated 38 in 119 games with the D-backs' Triple-A Reno Aces in 2012.

Nationals highest average sprint speed, 2017
Min. 10 "max effort" plays
1. Trea Turner, 29.2 ft/sec
2. Wilmer Difo, 29.0 ft/sec
3. Adam Eaton, 28.9 ft/sec
4. Michael A. Taylor, 28.1 ft/sec
5. Bryce Harper, 28.0 ft/sec

More times on base for Eaton should result in more opportunities to steal. He and Turner will look to pick up where they left off from last April, forming a lethal one-two punch at the top of manager Dave Martinez's batting order. Eaton's return should provide a major boost in several facets of the game to a team trying to achieve its lofty goals.

Oliver Macklin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @basebollie.

Washington Nationals, Adam Eaton