D-backs turn to Eaton for jolt at top of order

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Adam Eaton can get under your skin. Ask the Sacramento River Cats.

As part of adapting to the leadoff role at Triple-A Reno, Eaton chose to work on his bunting in a game last May 25. He beat out a bunt toward second base to lead off the game. He did the same thing in the third inning. And in the fifth. After he doubled in the seventh, the River Cats had had enough. They hit him with the bases loaded in the eighth, a run they were willing to trade for the bruise.

Later in the same series, Eaton tapped the catcher’s shin guards and said hello as he entered the batter’s box for his first at-bat. Nothing. Tapped them again. Still nothing. So Eaton had something to say.

” ‘OK, I’m going to be a pain in your (rear) the rest of the day,’ ” Reno manager Brett Butler said, smiling as he recalled the story.

That sort of spark is one of the reasons the Diamondbacks believe Eaton will be a valuable piece at the top of their order this season, among the reasons they are giving him every opportunity to win the center field job.

“I love the fieriness,” Butler said.

Butler saw more than that in Eaton, who hit .377 with 47 doubles, 48 RBIs and 44 stolen bases in the minors last year. Butler calls him “probably the second-best player” he’s managed, behind only Carlos Gonzalez. Then there is Mike Trout.

“When it comes to energy, he is Mike Trout without the 30 (home run) pop. He can hit 10-15,” Butler continued. “He is Mike Trout because of the energy Trout exudes. He brings that to the field. That’s what Eaton does.”

Eaton has played every day this spring and is hitting .350 with one home run and four RBI in a continuation of his eye-opening springs. A left-handed hitter, Eaton homered over the left-field fence in his first spring training at-bat with the D-backs in 2011 after being invited over from minor-league camp. He doubled off the left-field wall the next time up.

“When he hit the home run his first at-bat, it was like, ‘Holy bleep,’ because he wasn’t very big,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “You didn’t expect the sock. Then he hit a double off the wall the next time. That’s when you say, ‘Let’s check this guy out.'”

Eaton showed well in a September recall last season before suffering a broken hand that cost him the final week. He finished with a .259 average, two homers, five RBI and two stolen bases. He also walked 14 times in 22 games for a .382 on-base percentage, the kind of number that plays well at the top of a lineup.

He is not all offense. Eaton has above-average range at all three outfield positions and the arm to comfortably play in right field. He made one of the defensive plays of the season late last year in San Diego, racing to deep left-center field in spacious Petco Park to make a running catch, then making a 180-degree turn and throwing to first base on the fly to complete a double play.

Eaton is still learning the nuances of hitting leadoff – hence the bunt work against Sacramento last May – after hitting third at every previous stop, and he is working on his route running in center. The D-backs have seen progress.

The starting job in center field opened when Chris Young was traded to Oakland early in the offseason, and Eaton savors the chance to fill it.

“If you can’t deal with pressure right now, I feel like you shouldn’t be in this game,” he said. “Going up through the minor leagues, the draft day, everything has pressure to it. You learn to deal with it through the minor leagues, and you learn to deal with it up here. I am ready for the opportunity and excited for it.”

Cody Ross, expected to start in right field, lockers next to Eaton at Salt River Fields and is impressed with what he has seen.

“He’s got that mentality to be a big leaguer, and a really good one for a long time,” Ross said. “He has that edge, that chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove it, to show people that he is capable.”

That mentality has defined Eaton from the time he was a young player coached by his father through his years at Miami University in Ohio. He has made five all-star teams in his three minor league seasons, and he was named Baseball America’s most exciting player and best baserunner last year in the annual “best tools” survey of league managers.
The mentality is part of the package for a guy whose Twitter handle includes the word “spanky.”

“Well, I’m 5-8. I have to have an edge,” he said. “You want to have that little chip, that small-man syndrome, that Napoleon syndrome. You have to have that to play at this size at this level.”

Ask the River Cats.