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Adam Eaton is the spark the Washington Nationals’ offense needs

Nats’ left fielder Adam Eaton could finally return to the field next week...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost a year since he last suited up for a live major-league game, but Adam Eaton is reportedly “very, very close” to returning to the field for the Washington Nationals. Manager Dave Martinez has already announced Eaton will be leading off once he’s healthy, setting the stage for a lineup that looks even more dangerous than the one Washington fielded last season.

“Anybody who was watching us early on in the season [in 2017], that first month of the season the lineup was dynamic and electric when he was at the top of it,” GM Mike Rizzo told Buster Olney on the ESPN Baseball Tonight podcast. “We were missing that when he went out.”

That first month of 2017 provided the Nats a glimpse of their potential when completely healthy. Washington scored the most runs in April (170) since the Colorado Rockies opened their 2005 campaign with 173 in the first month. The Nats still went on to score the most runs in franchise history with 819, but there was a gaping hole where Eaton’s presence at the top of the order used to be.

Biggest Declines in Offense among MLB Teams in 2017 (second vs. first half)

Team First Half Second Half Lowest +/-
Team First Half Second Half Lowest +/-
Brewers 451 281 -170
Rays 428 266 -162
Astros 527 369 -158
Dodgers 463 307 -156
Nationals 486 333 -153
The Nationals scored 153 fewer runs after the All-Star Break than they did before it, finishing with one of the five biggest declines in the majors. Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

Teams played approximately 15 fewer games in the second half than they did the first, so the numbers look a little worse than they actually are. It does show, however, that the Nats’ production fell off as the months went on. After scoring the 170 runs in April, here are Washington’s run totals by month the rest of the season: 116, 161, 128, 129, 115. Aside from June — Murphy’s most prolific month of the season — the Nats weren’t close to replicating their production from April.

Prior to last season, Eaton finished three consecutive years with an OPS above .760 and at least 14 stolen bases. He hit almost exclusively leadoff for the Chicago White Sox, scoring the tenth-most runs in the American League despite playing on an offense that had the seventh fewest players cross the plate in the majors over that span.

With Eaton progressing and Daniel Murphy (knee) still not ruled out for Opening Day, the Nats could enter the season at full strength. Michael A. Taylor (side), who’s currently in line to return to action this weekend, will be replacing Jayson Werth in the lineup — something that could only be an upgrade after Werth posted an 84 OPS+ last season. If Matt Wieters is able to bounce back from a career-worst year (.225/.288/.344), the Nats won’t have a hole in their lineup.

There will certainly some questions surrounding the team on Opening Day even if Murphy — who’s a toss-up at this point — and Eaton are ready to go. Ryan Zimmerman is a prime candidate for regression after benefitting from a .335 BABIP and a staggering 26.5 home run to fly ball rate in 2017. Bryce Harper missed a significant chunk of time for the third time in the last five years and is under an immense amount of pressure playing in his walk year. Taylor has had several up-and-down seasons and Wieters is by no means a safe bet to pick up his play.

Yet, if last April is any indication of what this group of hitters can do over a full season when healthy, the Nats’ offense could be among the best in baseball.