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Losing Adam Eaton is not the Nats’ biggest problem

Even as they struggle to replace their center fielder, Washington is still well positioned to win the NL East. But what happens then?

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Nationals gave up a lot to get Adam Eaton this offseason, dealing their top two pitching prospects for a dynamic center fielder who would complete what should be the best lineup in the National League. With a closing window to make the World Series before Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy hit the free agent market, this seemed like one of the biggest and best moves of the offseason. And the early season bore that out, with Eaton hitting .297/.393/.462 and the Nats off to a hot 16-7 start through the end of Friday.

Then Eaton tripped over first base in Friday’s game, tearing his ACL and putting him on the shelf for the rest of the year. So are the Nats just sunk? How much is Eaton’s absence going to hurt them?

The bad news is that Eaton’s absence is going to hurt the club on the field a lot. Eaton was a dynamic offensive presence at a premium defensive position. While he was limited defensively, he had significant value simply through his ability to just stand in center field and look competent. His replacement, Michael Taylor, has had a good two-game stint in Eaton’s absence, but is a lifetime .228/.279/.359 hitter through 825 plate appearances. Despite having really strong tools, there’s every indication that he is, at best, a replacement level player.

That said, Eaton’s absence shouldn’t prevent the Nats from winning the NL East yet again. By virtue of their five game lead, Washington already has a heck of a head start, and Baseball Prospectus gives them (as of this morning) at least an 86 percent chance of making the postseason already and a 79 percent chance of winning the division.

Also, the division was essentially only a two-team race to begin with, and the Mets have done a fantastic job of shooting themselves in the foot like only the Mets can. First, they started 10-14, mired at the bottom of the East. And virtually everyone is on the DL. Lucas Duda is out with a hyperextended elbow. Steven Matz has an elbow injury. Wilmer Flores, Seth Lugo, and Brandon Nimmo are out too. They let both Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard try to play through injuries, sidelining the former until the middle of the month and the latter indefinitely. With barely enough players left to field a team, the Mets are struggling to gain any traction.

And we’re seeing positive development from other hitters in the Washington lineup that can compensate, in part, for the loss of Eaton. Trea Turner, for instance, has been an important cog in the Nats lineup when he’s healthy. And the return to form of Ryan Zimmermann is especially welcome after shoulder problems caused an alarming drop in production over the last three years. Plus Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper continue to provide elite offense in the middle of the Nats’ lineup. And the top four starters in their rotation have a 2.80 ERA with a 35/118 BB/K ratio in 131 2/3 innings.

Indeed, the biggest problem the Nats have is not center field, but a bullpen with only one reliable reliever and a 5.70 collective ERA. Far more than the loss of Eaton, that’s going to be a major problem, especially when the postseason rolls around. So while no one wants to lose a player of Eaton’s caliber, the team’s biggest need is still relief pitching. Because even an average bullpen will make them odds-on favorites in October.