Washington Nationals: Predicting the pending outfield logjam

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 06: Adam Eaton #2 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with Bryce Harper #34 after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on April 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 06: Adam Eaton #2 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with Bryce Harper #34 after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on April 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) /

The Washington Nationals are about to have a glut of qualified outfielders on the major league roster. Who plays and who is the odd man out?

Key injuries and struggling veterans have made Davey Martinez’s life harder than expected through the first third of the season, but his biggest juggling act with the Washington Nationals may still be yet to come.

With Adam Eaton eligible to come off the 60-day DL this week, Martinez will soon find himself with four starting outfielders for three spots. Throw in Brian Goodwin, and Martinez will have plenty of options keeping him up at night.

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Bryce Harper is obviously the everyday right fielder, even as he works through a few glitches at the plate. He still owns a team-best .898 OPS and he has such incredible upside that Martinez has to play Harper every day. Any other idea is simply foolish.

However, locking Harper into right field into the lineup does impact the rest of the outfield rotation. For starters, it limits Michael Taylor, Juan Soto, Eaton, and Goodwin to just two spots. It also means Martinez must incorporate defense into his playing time strategy, as Harper is merely an average defender at best in right field.

Martinez has stated his desire to keep Taylor in center-field, though he is clearly the worst hitter among the group right now. Taylor is batting just .204/.273/.368, which is actually an improvement on his slash line from two weeks ago.

Even if Taylor’s bat doesn’t stay hot, Martinez’s life doesn’t get any easier, as Taylor is the only true center-fielder on the roster. Eaton has manned center for both Chicago and Washington, but the advanced numbers have not been kind in return.

From 2015-17, Eaton was worth minus-22 defensive runs saved in 1,821.1 innings center-field innings, which ranked 26th out of 30 players (min. 1,500 innings). Now with significant leg injuries the last two seasons, it seems unreasonable to think he can hold down the position even in a part-time role.

There are even concerns about Eaton in the far easier left-field, and with a shaky Harper manning right, a defensive whiz (Taylor) sandwiched between them becomes even more paramount.

The one big wrinkle continues to be the 19-year-old Soto, who has been the team’s best hitter since his promotion to the bigs. Soto is batting a robust .326/.415/.522 over 14 games and has shown supreme plate discipline, with power to all fields.

However, Soto also can’t really play center. He has acquitted himself well in left in Eaton and Howie Kendrick’s stead, but he isn’t crisp enough yet to shift up the defensive spectrum.

If Martinez wants to put out his best offensive group, he could roll with Harper in right, Eaton in center, and Soto in left. Those are three offensive weapons for sure, but it is also a very vulnerable defensive grouping with youth concerns and injury risks. Can that trio drive in more runs than they give up?

Another issue is that four of the five outfielders are left-handed. Even if Martinez wanted to run with a possible platoon, he doesn’t have that lineup flexibility available to him.

The Nationals could always option Soto to the minor leagues, but that seems unlikely if he keeps playing this well. He has remarkable plate discipline that outpaces his age, and the Nats can’t afford to be moving on from one of their few offensive producers right now.

Once Eaton is settled on the roster, it seems likely Martinez uses a quasi-platoon in left and center with Eaton, Taylor, and Soto. That means against some righties, Martinez will often risk a defensive drop-off with a Harper-Eaton-Soto outfield.

Taylor’s defense and improving bat will still earn him starts against some righties and all lefties. When Taylor starts against right-handers, Eaton and Soto will alternate in left-field.

Davey Martinez can also give Harper a day off every now and then as well. At the very least, the Nationals should have one very good pinch-hitting option for late game situations.

Baseball has a funny way of working itself out whenever a team appears to have an overcrowded position. An injury or an untimely slump will open the door for an obvious solution to the Nationals problem.

Next: Kelley's stint may be up with Nats

These playing time questions will become even murkier when Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, and eventually Victor Robles return to the major leagues. Lineup variability is uncommon amongst contending teams, but the Nats’ rash of injuries has put them in an uncommon situation.