Since Alfonso Soriano had one of the greatest seasons in Nationals and baseball history in 2006, joining Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and Alex Rodriguez in the 40-40 club (and adding another 40 doubles), the Nationals have been looking for a permanent solution to two revolving doors: the leadoff spot and centerfield.
While Soriano was making history as the leadoff man, the Nationals fielded a combination of Marlon Byrd (51 games), Ryan Church (45 games), Alex Escobar (23 games), and the immortal Nook Logan (27 games) in center. Then, former GM Jim “Ralph” Bowden would try Lastings Milledge, a 22-year-old top prospect who was acquired in a trade for the tragically underrated Ryan Church. Milledge showed a promising slash line of .268/.330/.402 with 24 steals, but posted a -14.7 dWAR and was gone the next year. Mike Rizzo brought in Nyjer Morgan, who would again show promise, slashing .351/.396/.435 over 49 games, stealing 24 bases, and making some impressive plays in center. He, again, would be gone the following year. After Soriano signed a mega-deal with the Cubs in November 2006, the centerfield and leadoff positions would become a hodgepodge of the comical, the frustrating, and the completely insane.
The Nationals would right the ship in 2012, both as an organization and with respect to the CF/leadoff holes. Jayson Werth, coming back after breaking his wrist, assumed the leadoff role. As Larry Leadoff, he would post an impressive .309/.388/.450. Center field would eventually be manned by a young 19-year-old rookie. In 2013, Rizzo would bring in fan-favorite Denard Span to man centerfield and leadoff. Span would produce like few had up until that point, posting 7.4 WAR through 2013 and 2014. Injuries and inconsistency lead to a disappointing 2015 for Span, and he ultimately signed with San Francisco for 2016.
Last season started off looking like another black hole with Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor manning center. They would post a -1.4 and 0.4 WAR respectively, and conjure up gaffes reminiscent of those 100-loss years. The Nationals would have the lowest production from center in the major leagues prior to July 2016.
Trea Turner’s ascension in July would change that. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, posted a .342/.370/.567 slash line, and accumulated 3.3 WAR in just 73 games. His speed on the base paths made even the best pitchers personally wet themselves. The Nationals, at long last, had found a legitimate leadoff man.
This past offseason, the Nationals had to address the gaping hole in the lineup that was Danny Espinosa (in the NLDS, he posted a 44.4% K rate). They would have to move Turner to short, his natural position, and find a centerfielder, or identify a shortstop. Mike Rizzo decided to do the former, paying a seemingly hefty price for the Mighty Mouse Adam “Spanky” Eaton; Rizzo gave up top-prospect Lucas Giolito, impressive Reynaldo Lopez, and former first-round pick Dane Dunning.
Eaton has done nothing but impress, while Giolito and Lopez have not. Though Eaton has cooled a bit over the last few weeks, he is an on-base machine. He has consistently posted .360 OBP over his career, and has been on base 17 of 20 games this season. One of those three base-less games was a one-AB, pinch hit appearance. Defensively, Eaton has been mediocre in center, posting -1.6, -8.8, and -2.7 dWAR there. His bat, however, more than makes up for any defensive liabilities. Though Turner has started off slowly, he has broken out of the early season slump—posting the first National’s cycle in nine years, and nearly repeating the feat the very next night.
This lineup has the makings of the best lineup the Nationals have ever featured. The Nationals have had a good middle-of-the-order for the last eight years, or so, going back to the Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham 3-4-5 of yesteryear. This year’s version is a bit better. What they have lacked, though, is that dynamic presence at the top of the lineup. With Eaton and Turner, they have two. Span provided that energy for two years, but never like this.
OK, this is nuts … the combined slash line during this road trip for Turner-Harper-Zimmerman-Murphy is .419/.493/.863
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) April 27, 2017
Washington ranks third in team batting average, first in OBP, second in slugging (actually third, but I refuse to acknowledge Colorado’s synthetic offense), and tops the majors in OPS. It is no coincidence that this comes in the same year they figured out the revolving door for the leadoff role and center field.
Both Turner and Eaton put the ball in play—their career K-rates are 19.9% and 16.8%, respectively. With their speed, this stat is key; speed is useless if you strike out (ahem, Michael A. Taylor). While Eaton walks far more than Turner, 13.2% to just 2.6% this year, Turner is smoking the ball with a 32.1% line drive rate—good for 11th in baseball—and ranks 19th in hard-hit percentage at 46.4%. And let’s not forget the “Sneaky Pop”—although it is not so sneaky anymore. Turner’s 162 game average:
Those numbers make me giddy. But when you pair them with Eaton’s, they are unique:
The Nationals can combine 30-doubles, double-digit triples, 15-20 homeruns, and a combined 75-80 stolen bases (which might be on the low end, as Turner might be able to do that by himself). Typically, leadoff hitters are not known for driving in runs. Clearly, our guys are not typical: Eaton is currently slashing .500/.556/.643 with RISP and Trea is at .333/.400/.778. What other team can boast this level of production from their 1- and 2-hole hitters? The Cubs have been going with Schwarber and Bryant in the 1 and 2 slots. As good as they are, I do not think opposing pitchers are going to worry about Kyle Schwarber stealing a base on a pick off.
However Dusty Baker decides to set the lineup, it is a nightmare for opposing pitchers. The Nats have these two hitting in front of the 2015 MVP, 2016 MVP runner-up, a resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, and an overlooked Anthony Rendon, to say nothing of our 7th and 8th hitters. This team is going to score runs, a lot of them. Turner and Eaton at the top of the lineup allow the Nationals to play small, medium, long, or beat-the-ever-living-snot-out-of-you ball. Oh, and lest we forget: Turner is a free agent in 2023 and Eaton is here until 2020 at least.Tags: Adam Dunn, Adam Eaton, Alex Escobar, Alfonso Soriano, Ben Revere, Danny Espinosa, Denard Span, Dusty Baker, Josh Willingham, Marlon Byrd, Michael Taylor, Mike Rizzo, Nationals, Nats, Nook Logan, Nyger Morgan, Ryan Church, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Washington Nationals