The Washington Nationals, whose hard line on prospects kept them from acquiring all-stars Andrew McCutchen and Chris Sale this offseason, traded their top two pitching prospects and a 2016 first-round pick to the Chicago White Sox for low-cost center fielder Adam Eaton on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’ve got ourselves a good, young, skillful player that we control at below market values for five seasons,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has never given up a prospect package like this before. “Again, you have to give to get. We certainly got what we wanted.”
The Nationals traded right-handers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning for Eaton, 28. Giolito, rated as the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball at times last season, and Lopez, who cracked the playoff roster with high-90s stuff, showed they were close to major league ready last season. For Dunning, taken No. 29 overall out of the University of Florida, last year was his first of professional ball.
Eaton’s arrival all but ends the Nationals pursuit of McCutchen, whose price was believed to be even steeper than Eaton’s. It also pushes Trea Turner back to shortstop, his natural position.
Defensive metrics have yielded fluctuating evaluations of Eaton, who played mostly right field for the White Sox last season. He he brings speed, a strong throwing arm, and consistent a .284 career average to D.C. More importantly, he brings long-term value: Eaton is owed $18.4 million for the next three seasons with affordable options for 2020 and 2021. McCutchen, by contrast, is coming off a down year, is owed more money and would be a free agent the same time as Bryce Harper.
“We feel this deal is built around asset allocation,” Rizzo said. “Adam Eaton is a heck of a good player and a favorable contract.”
Depending on how much stock one puts on wins above replacement — and the Nationals certainly do — Eaton might be as underrated as he is unheralded. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Eaton has accumulated a 9.7 WAR figure by the FanGraphs calculation, sixth among major league outfielders in that time. Yoenis Cespedes, for reference, accumulated 9.9 WAR in that time. McCutchen’s figure is 6.5.
Rizzo particularly likes Eaton’s grit, and used words like “fiery” to describe a player with a reputation for endless energy. Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said he heard the main knock on Eaton was sometimes managers had to calm him down.
Until the Nationals called up Turner last season, they used a combination of Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor in center. Even with Turner’s explosive second half, their center fielders hit .261 with a .308 on-base percentage and 18.1 percent strikeout rate. Eaton hit .284 with a .362 on-base percentage and strikeout rate of 16.3 percent. He will likely slot somewhere in the top of the order, a speedy left-handed complement to Turner. Rizzo said that while Eaton can play more than one outfield position, he will play center field, “at least in the short-term.”
But the general feeling around Gaylord National Harbor on Wednesday evening was shock. The Nationals had offered Giolito, Lopez, Dunning and Victor Robles for Sale, one of the best left-handed starters of the decade. They traded Giolito, Lopez and Dunning for Eaton. That prospect haul was massive, and as talented as any with which Rizzo has been willing to part since he took over the team in 2009. Harper summed up his reaction in a one-word tweet: “Wow . . .”
— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) December 7, 2016
Giolito struggled for the first time in his career in 2016, but was the top right-handed pitching prospect in Baseball America and MLB.com’s rankings last season. His velocity during his brief big league stint never approached the high-90s stuff advertised in prospect-pumping scouting reports, but he is 22 years old and still growing into his frame. Rizzo denied that any massive change in internal evaluations of Giolito contributed to an increased willingness to deal him.
Lopez has hovered in the top 50 in both rankings all year. Dunning was one of two first-round choices the Nationals made in this year’s draft. A few months ago, the Nationals refused to trade Giolito or Lopez in any package for Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller at the trade deadline. Wednesday, they parted with both for five years of a strong defensive outfielder with a consistent offensive history.
“Sometime along the way, in the last couple of weeks, Mike said something like, ‘I know the caliber of the players I’m asking about; you can’t offend me with any ask.’,” White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn said. ” . . . No one’s trying to get one over on anybody else. You’re trying to get the best deal for your club.”
The Nationals still need a closer, and the deal cut into the starting pitching depth that promised a long window of contention in the National League East. They have replaced the $6 million Revere would likely have been owed in arbitration this year with Eaton’s $4 million deal. They chose against higher-priced, higher-profile catching options to pay Derek Norris $4 million and bet on a bounce back.
Their plan appears to be to eschew high-salary, high-profile options for players they hope will provide value. High-priced closers Chapman and Kenley Jansen have yet to sign, though Rizzo has been vague about his team’s interest in both players and did not say whether money saved on Eaton would be applied to this year’s roster.
“This gives us flexibility positionally and payroll-wise,” Rizzo said. “It puts us in a position to do a lot of things.”
Whatever his plans, Rizzo’s trade track record is strong, with no major clunkers and few deals that even earned deserved much criticism. That streak might very well continue with this deal. But as the last full day of the winter meetings wrapped up Wednesday night, a few miles from Nationals Park, more questions surrounded the deal than have surrounded any other in Rizzo’s history as a dealmaker. The answers — about what Giolito and Lopez will become, about what exactly Eaton already is — will not come for some time.