Nationals can – and will – survive without Eaton

Theo Epstein knew it was bad as soon as it happened.

As Kyle Schwarber lay writhing on the warning track at Chase Field, felled by a collision with Dexter Fowler, Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ venerable president of baseball of operations, knew the 23-year-old wouldn’t be back in the lineup for a long time. And he wasn’t. Three games into the 2016 season, Schwarber’s season was over (until it wasn’t, of course; he came back, improbably, for the Cubs’ even more improbable World Series run).

“Everyone who knows Kyle was sick watching that play and the aftermath of that play,” Epstein told ESPN last April. “Just devastated for him. It’s tough news. It’s really devastating news, but we have to follow his example. In the wake of this injury, he’s putting the team first.”

On Sunday, in a devastating bit of deja vu, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo will likely say something similar, as FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported Saturday that Adam Eaton, the club’s prized offseason addition, has a torn ACL in his left knee and will miss the remainder of the season. Just like Schwarber.

No matter the time of year, be it April or October, losing a player to a major injury sucks. Losing a player like Adam Eaton, the league’s ninth-most valuable (6.1 WAR) contributor a season ago and one of the most consistent leadoff hitters in baseball, is positively brutal. Still, folks in Washington have likely grown accustomed in recent months to things going terribly awry, and the Nationals – much like Chicago did a year ago when Schwarber’s knee exploded – can not only withstand this blow, but will probably still win the National League East rather handily this season, if not quite by the ridiculous 17.5-game margin the Cubs won their division by in 2016. They’re just that good, and the rest of their division is pretty terrible.

It’s kind of unfair, frankly, how good the Nationals are. For starters (pun intended), they have arguably the best rotation in baseball, with two perennial Cy Young candidates leading a corps that ranks among the top five in the majors in park-adjusted ERA, fielding independent pitching, WHIP, opponents’ batting average, and hard-contact rate. Their lineup doesn’t have any soft spots, either. Heading into Saturday’s slate of games, the Nationals’ non-pitchers had combined to hit .300 with an MLB-leading .882 OPS, which was more than 50 points higher than the second-best offensive club; Eaton, after all, put up a gaudy .297/.393/.462 line before getting hurt and ranks sixth on the team (min. 30 PA) with a 129 wRC+. They’re not an especially strong defensive club, and their bullpen has been shaky so far, but even with their relievers melting down more often than all but eight other teams, the Nationals have still won two-thirds of their games while managing the second-best run differential in the majors.

If any non-Cubs team can weather a long-term injury to a key player, it’s this one, and, well, based on a series of projections, Eaton was only poised to contribute to the extent that, say, Ringo contributed to the Beatles’ songwriting process. They can survive without him, in other words, even though he definitely is important.

Rest of season (ROS) projections, Steamer

Since the Nationals decided to plug him into center field this season (despite the crazy spike in value he enjoyed last year after moving to right), Eaton’s projections for 2017 were rather modest, and so the drop-off in value to Michael Taylor, according to Fangraphs’ Steamer projection model, will cost the Nationals less than two marginal wins the rest of the way. Right now, at 16-8 following their 5-3 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday, the Nationals have a 3.5-game lead atop their division.

And speaking of their division, which the Nationals have won three times in the last four years, it is, to put it charitably, a dumpster fire. Two teams are rebuilding: The Miami Marlins remain mired in perpetual mediocrity, and the Mets have a razor-thin margin for error, and likely won’t be able to overcome a serious injury to one of their top three starters or Yoenis Cespedes (who, you know, landed on the disabled list Friday with a hamstring problem).

2017 full-season projection, Fangraphs

As you can see, there’s a considerable gulf between Washington and everyone else, and the loss of Eaton, as much as it stings, isn’t going to change that. This is still the Nationals’ division to win, and barring a truly catastrophic confluence of circumstance, they’re going to do it, just with their newly acquired center fielder watching from the dugout.

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