- - Saturday, February 17, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Adam Eaton was known for playing the game of baseball with his hair on fire — the cliché used to describe a player who approaches the game with uncontrollable energy and enthusiasm.

They love that in baseball. Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo loved it when he traded two of the organization’s top pitching prospects —Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito — to the Chicago White Sox for Eaton in December 2016.

“He plays with an edge,” Rizzo said about Eaton after the deal. “He’s playing 100 miles an hour with his hair on fire.”

No more. A torn knee ligament and nine months of recovery will go a long way to put that fire out.

Washington fans never really had a chance to see that energy and enthusiasm. Eaton tore ligaments in his left knee trying to beat out a grounder to short against the New York Mets in an April 28 game at Nationals Park and was out for the rest of the year.

Now, he is ready to return — but he’s not the same player. He believes we’ll see a smarter, better version of Adam Eaton.

“If you looked at me early in my career, I really played with my hair on fire, running into walls, really stupid stuff,” he said. “Then in my second year in Chicago I kind of tried to slow things down, be more methodical. I think this will only rush that process, which is good.

“I think I can be very efficient at a slower pace,” said Eaton, 29, who expects to be in the starting lineup for the March 29 opening game in Cincinnati.

“Not slow as in not running fast, but slow as in, there’s a ball hit 15 steps to my right and I can get to it a little slower and be fine, instead of running over there and getting in front of it and then throwing a freaking scud missile to second base when I can just really just get it in. That mentality will help me out. I see it as giving longevity to my career, I think it will slow things down. It will help me play smarter. I’ll have to be smarter.

“It will be fun,” Eaton said. “You guys haven’t seen me healthy in a long time.”

When Eaton was healthy before, he was fun to watch — a good defensive outfielder who batted .290 with a .362 on base percentage and 265 runs scored in three seasons with the White Sox, after being traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was supposed to be a big part of the Nationals 2017 team — as a leadoff hitter and center fielder.

He should be a big part of the 2018 Nationals squad — again as a leadoff hitter, but this time in left field. Eaton has crowned Michael Taylor, who got his chance to play last year after Eaton was hurt, as the center fielder for this team.

‘I think Michael Taylor is more than accomplished in center,” Eaton said. “He plays a heck of a center field. I am a man and I will say he can probably play a better center field than me at this point with my leg. If I am managing, stick me in left, but I can play all three. I am comfortable in all three. Hopefully that is a value for me.

Wherever he (manager Dave Martinez) sees fit to want me, but Michael is more than a qualified center fielder,” he said. “I think by any stretch he is top three in the big leagues, and I don’t think I am talking out of turn to say that.”

It will be an impressive outfield — Eaton in left, Taylor in center and Bryce Harper in right.

“I think you are talking about one of the great defensive outfields in the National League and maybe all of baseball,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got three guys who are capable of playing center field, a Gold Glove finalist (Taylor) in center, Eaton was regarded as a corner outfielder as one of the best in the business, and Harper can play center field. They have great range and angles and once they get comfortable playing with each other they’ll be terrific. And I think you’ve got three of the quality throwing arms in all of baseball.”

Rizzo is not worried that a more mature, cautious Eaton will take the edge off the game that the general manager fell in love with. “You see it with a lot of guys who play hard and fast and as they move forward in their careers,” he said.

“They learn to play the marathon that is the season. You don’t lose your DNA as a player. I think you naturally learn to control your aggression and pick your spots. I don’t believe he will switch from being the very aggressive player that he is. Experience helps in that situation, and I don’t expect him to approach the game any different. He’s going to have that aggressive style and play extremely hard.”

Hard, but smart — and hopefully, for a long time.

“I’m just a little older this year,” said Eaton, who is under contract with the Nationals for the next two seasons, with team options for 2020 and 2021. “I think it is a good thing, I hope to be old in this game and I hope this can help me evolve into that kind of player where I can take care of my body ahead of injury.”

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays, available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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