Nationals Pay Enormous Price for Adam Eaton, but He's Worth the Risk
Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo clearly didn’t want to leave the Winter Meetings empty handed.
After losing out on both Mark Melancon and Chris Sale, Rizzo was apparently hell bent on filling a need for a roster. Why do I say that? Well, because he paid an exorbitant price to acquire outfielder Adam Eaton.
The proposed package Washington offered the Chicago White Sox for Sale -- one of the best pitchers in baseball -- reportedly included top prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Victor Robles and Dane Dunning.
The package for Eaton -- a solid player but probably not considered by many to be one of the game's best -- looks awfully similar:
The Nationals offered Giolito, Lopez, Dunning, and Robles for Chris Sale. They just traded Giolito, Lopez, and Dunning for Adam Eaton.
— Jorge Castillo (@jorgeccastillo) December 7, 2016
On the surface, this seems like a bit of an overpay. After all, MLB.com ranks Giolito and Lopez as two of the top-10 right-handed pitching prospects in the game, while Dunning was Washington's first-round pick last June.
Understandably so, the reaction from some front office executives were not favorable:
Had two people reach out and opine that the Adam Eaton trade was worse than the Shelby Miller trade. #Nationals #DBacks
— Robert Murray (@RobertMurrayFRS) December 7, 2016
Eaton is a solid, albeit unspectacular ballplayer, because there isn't one area of his game where he necessarily excels more than anyone else. But he's very good in multiple areas. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs actually labels this deal as a potential win-win, which many people would probably scoff at when looking at the sticker price.
However, it's not that crazy when we dig deeper into the kind of player Washington is receiving.
Eaton spent three seasons with the White Sox and has been rather consistent throughout his tenure. That consistency was particularly on display over the last two years.
Try finding a player with more similar back-to-back seasons – it’ll probably take a while.
When looking at the 2016 fWAR leaderboard on FanGraphs, you’ll see the game’s most elite players. Guys like Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Manny Machado, among others, have taken their normal spots up at the top.
Despite basically repeating his offensive performance from the year before, Eaton’s fWAR jumped from 3.7 to 6.0. How? It was his defense.
All You Need Is Glove
After signing Austin Jackson toward the end of last winter, the White Sox moved Eaton to right field to make room for their newest acquisition. That turned out to be one of the best decisions they made all year.
Entering 2016, Eaton had accumulated 25 outfield assists in 3,036 innings played. Through 1,362 innings last year, he registered a career-high 18 assists. He also saved 20 runs with his glove -- per Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) -- a number only surpassed in the outfield by Betts (32) and Kevin Pillar (21). Eaton led all outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) with a mark of 22.5.
Eaton’s elite defense was the main driver in his fWAR increasing so dramatically, but is it something the Nationals can count on? That’s anyone’s guess.
Defensive metrics can vary from year to year, and Eaton will be in center field for the foreseeable future with Washington. In center, he has produced much less consistent results throughout his young career.
These numbers don't look great, but there's potential for overall improvement.
Remember how Dexter Fowler made huge strides with his center-field defense last year while Andrew McCutchen took huge steps backward? The similarity here is that both teams pointed to defensive positioning as a big reason for these very different results. So, Eaton's advanced defensive metrics in centerfield aren't nearly as gaudy as the ones he produced in right field last year, but one small adjustment could make a huge difference.
That Contract Is Bananas
In today's MLB, organizations put a huge amount of value on team control -- especially team control that comes at a relative discount given a player's production. That's why the Boston Red Sox paid such a steep price to acquire Sale, and it's why the Nats parted with the above package for Eaton.
Eaton isn't an elite offensive player. But he's a solid contributor with a good glove, and he runs the bases at an above-average clip, ranking in the top 20 in BsR last season. If a player on the open market possessed this kind of profile, what kind of contract would it take to reel him in?
Cameron noted it'd be rather steep considering Jason Heyward has a similar skill set and received an eight-year, $184 million deal from the Chicago Cubs last winter. Instead of making that kind of commitment, Washington will have Eaton under contract for the next five years -- if Washington exercises their team options in 2021 and 2022 -- at a bargain basement cost of $38.4 million.
This deal takes Eaton from his age-28 through his age-32 season. So, the Nats will hypothetically be getting his prime years for an incredible discount.
It's easy to look at the package Washington sent to Chicago and claim it's an enormous overpay -- that's what I did when I heard the news. However, when considering everything Eaton brings to the table, along with his contract situation, this is actually worth the risk.
The optics between their offer for Sale and offer for Eaton aren't great, but we sometimes tend to forget that prospects are very fickle. Having elite ability is one thing, but actually turning that into elite production at the big-league level is totally different -- and really hard. Giolito's 6.75 ERA in 21 1/3 MLB innings last year is a great example of that.
Acquiring Eaton gives the Nats another offensive asset to put in front of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in the lineup, while inserting Eaton into center field makes the entire roster deeper by moving Trea Turner back to shortstop and Danny Espinosa to a bench role (for now).
And when Jayson Werth hits free agency next winter (followed by Harper the year after that), Washington will have the option of moving Eaton back to a corner spot if it's deemed necessary.
Compared to the asking prices for other available center fielders (*cough* Andrew McCutchen *cough*), this was what the Nats chose to do given the current environment, and it's hard to blame them for it.
If they had to give away a huge package of potential, they probably feel more comfortable doing it for five fairly cheap years of a player entering his prime (Eaton) instead of two years of a player potentially starting his decline (McCutchen).