Why the White Sox Were Smart to Lock Up Adam Eaton

The team agreed to a contract extension with the young lead-off hitter late last week. Why was it the right call?

Really good leadoff hitters are hard to come by these days. The Chicago White Sox hope they've locked up one of them for a good long while.

On Friday, Chicago signed speedy center fielder Adam Eaton to a five-year, $23.5 million deal with two team options that could take the deal through his first three years of free agency. Eaton will earn $850,000 this year, $2.75 million in 2016, $4 million in '17, $6 million in 2018, and $8.4 million in '19, with a $9.5 million club option in 2020 and $10.5 million team option for '21, at which point he will be 32 years old.

That should take Eaton straight through his prime seasons and give the White Sox stability at the leadoff position, as well as one of the most important defensive positions on the field.

How good is Eaton? Last year he hit .300/.362/.401 with a league leading 10 triples, 26 doubles, and 15 stolen bases in 538 plate appearances, by far the most playing time he had ever seen. He doesn't hit for any power, but his speed and defensive ability make him one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.

Admittedly, the defensive metrics for Eaton are a bit tricky to hash out. His 12 Defensive Runs Saved were fifth most in all of baseball last year, helping to lead to a Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) of 5.2. However, his Ultimate Zone Rating of -3.3 was only 11th best among all qualified center fielders, which is partly why his Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) is 2.7.

Even with those differences, Eaton knows how to play center field.

So where does Eaton rank among the game's best lead-off hitters? Here's a glance at the 10 best lead-off men, as ranked by weighted on-base average (wOBA).

Carlos GomezBrewers4728.10%23.70%270.3560.8440.371135
Kole CalhounAngels4897.40%19.20%40.3360.8070.354134
Brett GardnerYankees4919.40%20.40%150.3370.7960.350123
Christian YelichMarlins64410.70%20.50%210.3650.7690.343118
Denard SpanNationals6667.50%9.60%310.3560.7740.342118
Charlie BlackmonRockies6304.60%14.60%270.3350.7810.342101
Adam EatonWhite Sox5388.00%15.40%150.3620.7630.340115
Matt CarpenterCardinals70613.50%15.60%50.3750.7500.339117
Shin-Soo ChooRangers42911.70%24.70%30.3570.7430.333108
Jason HeywardBraves4289.60%16.60%140.3430.7360.328109

Eaton had the seventh-best wOBA among lead-off hitters last year at .340. He has a good eye at the plate, with an 8.0% walk rate that was ninth among all Major League lead-off men. His .362 on-base percentage was third-best, and his weighted runs created (wRC+) of 115 was tied for seventh.

One potential land mine was a .359 batting average on balls in play that was far higher than the league average of .299. That suggests he was luckier than most on balls put in play. However, his speed will likely always enable him to maintain a relatively high batting average on balls in play, something not unusual for lead-off hitters.

For Chicago, the risk they run is Eaton's injury history, which is not unsubstantial. He went on the disabled list last season for an oblique problem and a hamstring strain, and in 2013 he hit the disabled list because of a sprain in his left elbow.

Still, he is 26 years old and, if he can stay healthy, will provide the White Sox terrific value as an above average defender and capable lead-off hitter. He's not going to hit a ton of bombs out of the park, but he will get on base, steal a bag or two, and set up a Chicago lineup with some run producers behind him.