Washington Nationals: Maximizing outfield defense in 2018

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The Washington Nationals could form one of the best outfield trios with Harper, Taylor, and Eaton, a far cry from the 2017 grouping.

The Washington Nationals starting outfield seems set to go for 2018 Opening Day. Barring a splashy free agent signing or unforeseen injury, Bryce Harper, Michael Taylor, and Adam Eaton will be manning the green at Nationals Park.

Still, there are a few question marks on the fringes for this group beginning with the starting centerfielder.

Harper is clearly locked into right field, but the Nationals are grappling with the other two slots. Eaton claimed centerfield last Opening Day, sandwiched between Harper and the stationary Jayson Werth, but he ceded it to Taylor before May due to a nasty knee injury. Taylor dealt with injuries of his own, but he still posted a career year at the plate and in the field.

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If Washington keeps Taylor in center, and pushes Eaton to left field, it could have one of the best outfield defenses in baseball. Taylor piled up +9 defensive runs saved (DRS) in centerfield in 2017, while Eaton owns a career -14 DRS mark in centerfield (across 3,2830 innings).

But, the benefit of a slightly below average centerfielder is that they typically dominate in the corners. Eaton bore that out during his time with the Chicago White Sox. He scuffled in centerfield from 2014-15, and was pushed to right field the following season, where he turned into a defensive maestro. Eaton finished second among right fielders with +22 DRS in 2016, behind only Boston’s Mookie Betts, a former centerfielder himself.

Eaton and Harper, who has also spent time in centerfield, don’t always get the reads necessary to cover spacious centerfields, nor do they possess top-end speed if they do get a poor jump. But they are plenty athletic enough to handle the easier corner spots, and they certainly have the arm strength to hunt down base runners.

Harper and Eaton have combined for 97 assists in their career. Drop those cannons on either side of the rangy Taylor, and the Nationals will have one of the top defensive outfield trios in baseball. In 2017, the Red Sox won 93 games partially because of their team defense, particularly their outfield’s league-leading +47 DRS. The 2018 Nats won’t be quite that good, but if they can get +5 DRS from Harper in right, +10 DRS from Taylor in center, and +15 DRS from Eaton in left, they will certainly rank among the top five outfields.

Even the bench pieces will be respectable in fill-in scenarios. Victor Robles should begin the season in Triple-A, but he profiles as a plus defender whenever he gets time in the majors. Brian Goodwin will not win any Gold Gloves in the near future, but he won’t hurt the Nationals defensively, and can play all three positions.

And, the yet-to-be-determined fifth outfielder will mostly be used as a pinch hitter, and won’t see enough time defensively to really make an impact over a 162-game season.

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The Nationals’ outfield was relatively average last season even with countless injuries and suboptimal positional usage. But if Taylor takes over centerfield, the Nationals should paper over one of their few weaknesses from a year ago.

All defensive statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.

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