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Breaking down the Nationals' outfielders

January 4, 2019

WASHINGTON -- There has been a lot of attention focused on the free agency of Bryce Harper, and rightfully so, considering he is one of the biggest stars in the sport and expected to sign what could be a record-breaking contract this winter. But regardless of who is roaming around

WASHINGTON -- There has been a lot of attention focused on the free agency of Bryce Harper, and rightfully so, considering he is one of the biggest stars in the sport and expected to sign what could be a record-breaking contract this winter. But regardless of who is roaming around right field next season at Nationals Park, the Nationals figure to have a pretty strong outfield.
There is rookie sensation Juan Soto, coming off one of the best teenage seasons in MLB history; Victor Robles, the fourth-ranked overall prospect as rated by MLB Pipeline; Adam Eaton, perhaps fully healthy for the first time since 2016; and Michael A. Taylor, still extremely talented, especially on defense, even though his bat remains inconsistent. Losing Harper would certainly hurt, but the Nationals are as well suited as possible in the outfield to contend with his departure.
Here's a look at the Nationals' outfielders, what questions they will carry with them into the start of Spring Training and how their playing time might be affected if Harper does reunite with his former team.
What does Juan Soto have in store for an encore?
Fresh off his second-place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting, Soto's winter has looked a lot like his summer: mashing opposing pitching. He played in Japan as a member of MLB's All-Star Series team after the season and went 7-for-20 (.350) with two doubles, a pair of homers, five RBIs and a 1.159 OPS. Before the New Year, Soto played softball with other Major Leaguers and hammered another homer (then proceeded to run the bases in the opposite direction). Pitchers are certainly going to make their adjustments for next season, but Soto has shown he is capable of adjusting quickly.
"Do my routine and not change," Soto said. "If that worked, I got to keep going until I retire."
Status if Harper returns: Unaffected. The future became the present when Soto arrived way ahead of schedule in 2018, and he will be a fixture in D.C.'s outfield for years to come.

Is Victor Robles ready to take over as the starting center fielder?
Robles was the rookie outfielder everyone expected to have a major impact in D.C. last year, but a hyperextended left elbow at the end of April forced him to miss most of the season. His numbers in limited playing time as a callup the past two Septembers have been good -- .277/.337/.506 for a 117 OPS+ with four doubles, three homers, three triples and three stolen bases in 93 plate appearances. Each day he recovers from that injury, the Nats believe his power will only continue to improve. After Robles' name had been the source of trade speculation for years, the Nationals appear ready to make him their starting center fielder next season.
"I really feel like he's ready to play. He really is," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "He just needs repetition, to get out there and play. I don't want him to do anything different. ... Just go out there, play baseball and have fun."
Status if Harper returns: It could get tricky because Robles is perhaps the Nationals' most tantalizing trade chip; however, for two years, the Nationals have not yet found a deal they liked enough to part with Robles. Not Chris Sale in 2016, not for their reliever needs at the Trade Deadline and not J.T. Realmuto last season. Even with a glut of outfielders, I'm not sure there's a trade fit that makes sense.

Will Adam Eaton finally be healthy?
The past few years have only offered glimpses of the player the Nationals thought they acquired in December 2016 because a torn ACL has largely robbed Eaton of his tenure in Washington. In two seasons, he has appeared in 118 games, posting a slash line of .300/.394/.422 worth 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. Keeping Eaton on the field will be the top priority for his success. Expect him to share some time in the outfield, perhaps with Taylor, in order to keep his legs fresh. But Eaton is experiencing a healthy offseason again, and the Nats are excited about what a full season from Eaton could bring.
Status if Harper returns: Eaton could serve as an expensive veteran backup, likely as some sort of pairing with Robles in center field. But the Nationals would almost certainly have to explore trading him, although it will be difficult to get anything close to the value they paid for him, when they dealt their three best pitching prospects to the White Sox. And it is unclear how much interest there would be for Eaton coming off a major knee surgery and left ankle procedure last year.

<p<> Can Michael A. Taylor finally put all his tools together?</p<>
Taylor did not see the field much toward the end of the regular season, his playing time falling victim to the rest of the Nationals' talented and more productive outfielders. In the meantime, he began remaking his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long, aiming to cut down on so many swings and misses without robbing him of the power and tools that made him an enticing prospect in the first place.
Taylor played winter ball in the Dominican Republic to get more reps with his new swing. In seven games, he batted .143/.172/.179 with nine strikeouts and one walk, although he may return for more games later this month. Despite his lack of playing time at the end of the season, several Nats officials insist Taylor has not lost favor within the organization. It still sees him as a future Gold Glove Award-winning defender and is tantalized by his power. Considering the injury history of Eaton and uncertainty of Robles, the Nationals believe Taylor is a crucial part of the roster, the next man to step in in the event of an injury.
Status if Harper returns: Taylor would be in a similar position as he was at the end of last season when he barely played. Harper's return would easily make one outfielder expendable, and it's difficult to see where Taylor would get at-bats.

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