And to an extent, that’s correct. For a long time, teams undervalued their own prospects when they caught the win-now bug, sending way too much in return for a 33-year-old past his prime to play out the rest of the season. However, this trade isn’t that. Sale and Eaton are both just 27 years old, and not only are they entering the prime of their careers, they’ve already established themselves as one of the best pitchers in baseball and a solid center fielder who can swing the bat.
Sale is a five-time all star who has finished in the top five of the Cy Young race three times already. He led the American League in ERA+ at 173 in 2014 and in strikeouts per nine innings in 2014 (10.8) and 2015 (11.8, highest in the majors). He has seen a bit of a dip in that strikeout rate this season, (8.7) but still has a great 3.18 ERA along with three complete games.
Eaton doesn’t quite have the accolades that Sale does, but he is a reliably solid outfielder, putting up an OPS that was 20 percent and 22 percent higher than the league average in his first two years as a full-time starter while playing a passable center field. This season, he has been shifted over to right field and has excelled, saving 15.4 runs defensively according to FanGraphs. While right field is an easier position, it’s also likely that some of that is just natural improvement in defensive ability.
His best offensive skill is his on-base percentage (.355 for his career), and he’s a solid base runner. Essentially the prototype leadoff center fielder the Nats love so much.
Both Sale and Eaton are also signed to two of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball right now. Sale has two years, $21.5 million left on his deal along with two team options for $12.5 million and $13.5 million. Eaton is signed for the next four years for only $21.2 million plus two team options totaling just $20 million. Passing up five/six years of team control on the prospect package is hard, but they aren’t giving up much in terms of years or money to take on the two established players instead.
Prospects are prospects, and while Giolito, Turner and Robles rate as some of the best in the game, their status as prospects means we can’t know for sure what they’ll do when given full-time opportunities. There’s also a question of when the Nats need talent. With NL MVP Bryce Harper only signed through 2018, it’s easy to say that these three years are the most important for the Nationals right now. You only have so many chances to win with a generational talent on your team. Turner has yet to crack the starting lineup regularly, and Giolito is still behind several solid starting pitchers and needs more time to develop consistency and command of all of his pitches. Meanwhile, Robles is still just a Potomac National, and he’s not likely to be ready to join the Nats until 2018 or 2019. Ross is the only player in that package who’s ready to contribute now and has shown he can, and he’s currently on the DL with shoulder pain.
On the other hand, Sale and Eaton are locked up right through the same window as many of the other Nats stars. Putting together another solid core allows Washington to maximize its chances at making, and winning, a World Series. With the Nationals 4.5 games ahead of the second-place Miami Marlins and six games ahead of the New York Mets, the extra 2.7 projected wins Sale and Eaton provide over Ross and Ben Revere would go a long way.
Looking forward, a pitching rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Sale and Tanner Roark locked up through 2019 leaves little room for someone like Ross or Giolito to break through, while providing three pitchers with career ERA’s below 3.20 and Max Scherzer.
The past four years have shown that the Nationals are built not just on good starting pitching, but great starting pitching. In 2012, 2014 and 2016, the Nationals’ starters had combined ERAs of 3.40 (second in MLB), 3.04 (first) and 3.39 (second), while in 2013 and 2015 the Nationals had ERAs of 3.60 (seventh) and 3.70 (seventh). Yes, there were other flaws in the 2013 and 2015 teams, but there’s no denying the Nats’ bedrock is having the best pitching rotation in baseball.
It’s by no means a slam dunk. Sale’s drop in strikeout rate is certainly a concern, and we don’t know for sure whether Eaton can improve his center field defense to more acceptable levels. And you can’t discount the connection fans have to homegrown players, even if Turner and Ross weren’t entirely homegrown. However, it certainly isn’t a crazy idea and is a great example of how the Nationals can use the bundles of talent they suddenly have in their minor leagues to help the big league club today.