The tenuous fragility of a baseball season was laid bear at Nationals Park, Friday night.
As Washington outfielder, Adam Eaton lay crumpled on the ground like a blue sack of flour, the ballpark was silent. Their minds were no doubt permeated with visions of another promising season going up in flames.
Eaton appeared to injure himself by stepping onto the first base bag awkwardly, collapsing right afterwards. It looked like it might be the ankle at first, but the team later described it as a “knee injury.”
An MRI is the next step, which will most likely be carried out as soon as the swelling goes down. Whatever the result, the short term prognosis is not good; the Nationals will likely be without their centerfielder for a good amount of time.
You don’t need analytics to deduce how valuable Eaton has been to the Nats’ offense, this season. A trained monkey could point to his .855 OPS and 24 runs scored (third-highest total in baseball). Bryce Harper might be the club’s battery, but Eaton has been the spark plugs, the oil, the timing belt, etc.
The disastrous result of the seemingly-innocent play is surprising. That Eaton was the player involved should not be a shock to fans.
There are two types of baseball players: larger-than-life superheroes who are seemingly-indestructible, and guys that are always nicked up in some fashion or another.
Eaton falls into the latter camp. Throughout his career, he’s missed time with various, freak maladies. In 2013, he strained his throwing elbow and missed nearly 100 games. Oblique and hamstring tweaks cost him a quarter of 2014.
He’s signed to a team-friendly contract, so the Nats had no qualms about trading for him, despite the injury history. What they failed to do, however, is set up a good contingency plan, in case that history reared its head again.
Last off-season, Washington signed veteran catcher Matt Weiters and first baseman Adam Lind. Their only outfield move, besides acquiring Eaton, was re-signing role player, Chris Heisey.
The Nationals lack depth in the high minors. That is to say they lack those “organizational”, quad-A guys who can sometimes catch lightening in a bottle when called up to the big leagues – the Chris Dickerson’s of the world.
Instead, Rafael Bautista will get the call from AAA Syracuse. Bautista is a speedster (56 stolen bases at AA Harrisburg in 2016) who can play multiple outfield spots. He lacks Eaton’s on-base skills but, as a trade-off, may provide better flyball coverage in center.
However, he offers little in the way of power (.365 career slugging in the minors) and is unproven. It also means adding yet another right-handed bat to a lineup already stacked on that side of the plate.
They’ll likely plug him to the bottom of the order and see what happens. It will be interesting how long it will take them to react if he struggles.