WASHINGTON, D.C. — Wow.
That was Bryce Harper‘s one word Twitter reaction just minutes after the Washington Nationals traded for Adam Eaton this past offseason. Nearly five months later, the same word still applies. Only now, the “wow” takes on an entirely different meaning.
On Saturday, news broke that Eaton — who a day earlier injured his leg when he landed awkwardly at first base trying to beat out an infield hit against the Mets — is out for the season because of a torn ACL. It’s an absolute bombshell that has unwanted wow factor on multiple levels.
For starters, it’s a big-time blow to the first-place Nats, whose high-powered offense has been on cruise control for the better part of April. Through Friday, Washington was scoring 6.3 runs per game, nearly a full run more than the next closest MLB team. Their .847 OPS was more than 40 points better than the second-ranked squad. Their .361 on-base percentage was 17 points better than the next-best club.
At the root of that attack was Eaton. A gritty and undersized sparkplug who goes by the nickname of Mighty Mouse, he started his career in D.C. by slashing .297/.393/.462 in his first 23 games before going down. Although he’s not the only reason that Ryan Zimmerman, Harper, and Daniel Murphy rank 1-2-3 in the majors in RBIs (they’re the first trio of teammates ever to have at least 25 RBIs each in April), Eaton has a lot to do with it.
Beyond that, the Eaton news has wow power because it’s a gut-punch punchline to the December trade that had folks across baseball scratching their heads. In the deal, Nats GM Mike Rizzo gave up three top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning) to acquire to a 28-year old outfielder who never has been an All-Star, and whose 6.2 WAR last season (10th in the AL) was largely attributable to his standout defense in right field, a position already manned in D.C. by some guy named Harper.
Although it remains to be seen how Giolito & Co. develop in Chicago, and although Eaton still has four more years of very affordable club control left on his contract after 2017, Washington’s window to win is now, which means that losing Eaton for the season won’t do Rizzo any favors in the court of public opinion — at least not when it comes to this particular trade.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding the injury, Eaton himself isn’t wallowing.
“Be back very soon,” he said via text message Saturday evening. “Until then, time to get the pom-poms out.”
Exactly how long the pompoms stay out is anybody’s guess. Although the official word is that Eaton is done for 2017, it’s worth noting that last year, Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber shredded his ACL in April and was deemed out for the season, then surprised everyone by returning in time for the World Series.
Given that Eaton’s injury occurred about three weeks later than Schwarber, it seems almost impossible that he’d be healed in time for a potential appearance in the Fall Classic. Then again, Eaton’s a scrapper who was drafted in the 19th round with the 571st overall pick and has always prided himself on being the ultimate underdog. Of course, none of that matters unless the Nats — who are still searching for their first playoff series win since moving to D.C. — actually reach the World Series. Whether they can do that without their new center fielder remains to be seen.
Despite the loss of Eaton, Dusty Baker’s lineup up is still loaded. Young phenom Trea Turner is as good as any leadoff hitter in the game. Harper looks like his 2015 MVP self. Ditto for Murphy and his 2016 MVP runner-up self. And Zimmerman (.402, 11 HR, 27 RBIs) looks better than both of them, not to mention everyone else in the majors.
That said, early indications were that Eaton was a difference-maker at the top of the lineup. In his absence, skipper Dusty Baker will try Michael Taylor, who had three hits in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Mets but is a career .224 hitter. In theory, if Taylor doesn’t pan out, Harper could slide over to center field, where he spent most of his rookie season. Alternatively, Turner — who converted to center last year before returning to his native shortstop this season — could head back to the outfield. For the record, Baker doesn’t seem terribly interested in either of those contingency plans.
“No,” said the Nats skipper dismissively when asked on Saturday morning if he was open to the idea of Harper or Turner taking over in center field. “Leave my team alone.”
Coming from the typically laid-back Baker, it was a conspicuous comment — the kind that makes you stop and say, “Wow.”