Eaton sets sights on '17 return from ACL tear

Nats sparkplug will spend time with team as cheerleader, mentor for replacements

Eaton sets sights on '17 return from ACL tear

WASHINGTON -- Adam Eaton made his way into the Nationals' clubhouse Sunday morning on crutches with a boot on his leg and his left knee wrapped. The Nationals had officially diagnosed him with a full ACL tear, a meniscus tear and a high ankle sprain earlier that morning, but Eaton still apologized for sitting before addressing reporters for the first time since the injury -- "I'm pretty short, now really getting down there."

As he lunged toward the first-base bag to try to beat out an infield single in the ninth inning Friday night, Eaton recalled hearing a pop. Initially, he thought the sound was his ankle, but it turned out to be his ACL. He described the feeling as he laid on the ground that night up the first-base line as "the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."

Eaton exits the game in the 9th

"The game kind of got the best of me there a little bit," he said. "The ninth inning, just trying to make something happen, kind of got outside my zone there and lunged at the bag. It's part of the way I play, and it's unfortunate. I got snakebit a little bit there."

The Nationals did not place a timeline on Eaton's return, wanting to wait until he undergoes the surgery, but the recovery time for a torn ACL is generally 6-9 months. That would mean Eaton's season is almost certainly over, just 23 games into his first season with the Nationals after he was prized acquisition for general manager Mike Rizzo this offseason. Eaton had already made a huge impact, hitting .297/.393/.462 with two homers and three stolen bases as one of the catalysts at the top of the order for the top-ranked offense in the Majors.

Eaton's RBI triple

While a return this season is unlikely, neither Rizzo nor Eaton were willing to rule out the possibility Sunday afternoon that Eaton could play again in 2017.

"Heck no," Eaton said. "This is the beauty of athletes and sports. You push yourself to the brink, and I hope everyone says, 'You can't return,' or, 'You can't do it as quickly as this person or this person.'"

"I'm going to work my butt off and give myself the best-case scenario to play. This year would be great, and if that is the case, that means we are playing in October, that is for sure."

Eaton plans to be around the team as much as possible as he rehabs to serve as a cheerleader from the bench and to help mentor his replacements in center field, Rafael Bautista and Michael Taylor.

Taylor is in line to get most of the playing time in Eaton's absence, in what will be his third consecutive season being called upon to replace an injured starting center fielder. He has talent and is an excellent defender in center field, but he has struggled offensively during his Major League career, hitting .227/.279/.359 with a career strikeout rate of 32.1 percent.

Taylor's great diving catch

"He's a great tools player that has performed at this level, not for the consistent amount of time that we want him to," Rizzo said. "He needs to take his game to a different level, be more consistent in his play. Because he's shown flashes of brilliance. But he needs to sustain that good play and the consistency in his game.

"We know what he brings us every day to the ballpark: an elite center fielder, elite throwing arm, elite speed, ability to steal a base and power. He needs to work on strike zone command and swinging at pitches within the zone. And we've seen progress in both of those aspects. When he figures that out, we think he's going to be a very productive player for us."

Rizzo also maintained that for now the Nationals were comfortable with their internal options in center field and pointed out that it was one of the deepest positions in the entire organization.

"We think that we have the offense to compensate for Adam. We think that we have the personnel specifically at that position to compensate for him," Rizzo said. "It's one of the greatest depth positions that we have in the entire organization, so we feel good about that. We feel that we're still a hell of a team and are going to be tough to reckon with."

Worth noting:

• Rizzo also noted his disappointment with the first month for the Nationals' bullpen, which began the day with the second-highest ERA in the Majors at 6.12.

"They need to pitch better," Rizzo said. "They have the ability to do so. They've got the track record that they have done it and they need to do it. It's a performance business and it's all about in between the lines. They need to pitch better, and I think they will. I trust them, I believe in them, and I'll continue to believe in them, because they've done it before. When you evaluate the bullpen, their stuff is great and they need to pitch better."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.