Is disappointment looming for this versatile KC Royals player?

Kansas City's Nate Eaton is fighting for a roster spot.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's 2024 KC Royals player projection series. Over the next few weeks, we'll be reviewing how various Royals performed last year and predicting how they might fare this season. Up today is infielder-outfielder Nate Eaton.

Maikel García is one of several Royals whose Opening Day jobs are secure, a status that at this point in spring training means he starts Cactus League games, gets in two or three at-bats, then calls it a day.

So it was that, his work done for the afternoon, he gave way to pinch runner Nate Eaton after walking to lead off the top of the fourth inning against Cleveland Saturday. Unlike García, Eaton enjoys no guaranteed big league spot, and must battle hard and hit well to put himself in the running for one.

Nothing Eaton did after replacing García on the basepaths and in the field Saturday hurt his cause. He scored a run after replacing García, then collected a pair of hits, including the two-out, top-of-the-ninth two-run homer that made the difference in the Royals' 13-12 victory.

The homer was Eaton's second of the spring; he's now batting .250 and slugging .917. But even if he continues bashing home runs, and even if they keep coming in key situations, Kauffman Stadium may be, at least for the foreseeable future, a venue he sees only on television.

That's because Eaton may have seriously damaged his Kansas City prospects last season when, after playing pretty decently in 44 games for the Royals in 2022, then slashing .324/.390/.514 in 2023 spring training, he hit only .075 with a shocking -42 OPS+ and equally shocking -53 wRC+ in 28 games.

Not surprisingly, those numbers kept him at Triple-A Omaha most of the campaign, and the Royals outrighted him to the Storm Chasers after designating him for assignment in November. Is Omaha where he'll find himself when the 2024 season begins?

How Nate Eaton may perform for the Royals this season

Unfortunately for Eaton, whatever he does this year, he'll do primarily at Omaha, or elsewhere if the Royals trade or otherwise move on from him. But he'll probably return to Kansas City at some point.

Why? Because as he's demonstrated so well throughout his professional career, and again this spring by playing every outfield position and third base, Eaton is defensively versatile, a valuable characteristic the Royals can never seem to get enough of. Injuries happen and players occasionally spend time away from their teams on various types of leave, which means that even with such versatile players as Garrett Hampson and Adam Frazier, and perhaps Nick Loftin, on the roster, Eaton can count on spending a few days here and there with the Royals.

But if he wants more than that, he'll have to hit — it was, after all, his weak bat that kept him in the minors for the bulk of last season. Playing only sporadically in Kansas City, with little time at the plate, won't produce statistically significant good or bad results; playing frequently for the Royals, on the other hand, will. Expect in the latter case an average in the .245-.255 range and a few, but not many, home runs. Those numbers will probably disappoint Eaton.

So, too, will another season spent primarily in the minors ... and that's the most likely outcome for Eaton in 2024.

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