After a week filled with rumors, Wednesday afternoon the Washington Nationals acquired OF Adam Eaton from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for right-handed pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. This trade immediately makes Eaton Washington’s centerfielder next season and shifts Trea Turner back to his natural shortstop position.
The 28-year-old Eaton was outstanding for Chicago in 2016, batting .284/.362/.428 with 14 home runs, 52 extra base hits and 14 stolen bases in 19 attempts in 157 games played. Originally drafted by Arizona in 2010, Eaton was traded to the White Sox as part of a 3-team deal with the Diamondbacks and Angels in December 2013. Over his three seasons in Chicago, Eaton provided the White Sox with a .290/.362/.422 batting line with 29 home runs and 47 stolen bases. During his 5-year major league career, Eaton has a .284/.357/.414 batting line with 34 home runs and 54 stolen bases in 521 total games.
Defensively Eaton has above-average but not elite speed and a strong arm, making him profile well in the corners and fringe-average in center field. He played the majority of last season in right field, but is expected to shift back to center field in Washington. Eaton will make $4 million next season and is under contract through 2021, making $6 million in 2018, $8.4 million in 2019 and team options at $9.5 million for 2020 and $10.5 million for 2021.
In order to secure Eaton and team-friendly contract from Chicago, Washington was forced to part with three of their top-5 pitching prospects and top-7 prospects overall in Giolito, Lopez and Dunning.
Lucas Giolito was Washington’s 1st round selection, 16th overall, in the 2012 Draft and agreed to an over-slot bonus of $2.925 million mere moments before the signing deadline. Almost immediately after signing, Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively costing him the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Once returning to the mound, Giolito has steadily climbed the minor league ladder before receiving a 21.1 inning cameo in Washington late this season.
Giolito possesses an intriguing 3-pitch arsenal, consisting of a low-to-mid 90s fastball with good downward plane, a devastating low-80s curveball with excellent vertical drop and a low-80s changeup with promising sinking movement. Listed at 6-6 255lbs, Giolito is a large man with long limbs that he uses to get good extension toward the batter. However, his size works against his ability to repeat his delivery and causes him to struggle with his command and control of the strike zone.
Although he reached the majors in 2016, Giolito’s struggles against big league hitters proved he is still quite raw and needs additional development. However, the 22-year-old has elite talent and the potential for three above-average pitches inside an ideal pitcher’s frame. If he can learn to repeat his delivery and improve his command, Giolito still has the potential to be a #2 starter in the majors. Unfortunately he seemed to regress in 2016 and figures to develop more likely into a #3 or #4 starter.
Signed for $12,000 in June 2012 as an international free agent, Reynaldo Lopez has gone from an unknown to one of the top pitching prospects in baseball in four years. The nearly 23-year-old Lopez does not possess the prototypical pitcher’s body, standing only 6-0 185lbs, although he does have muscular legs and a well-developed upper body. His delivery has some excess movement and he throws off a stiff front leg, but his impressive athleticism allows him to repeat his simple delivery fairly well. Although the superficial statistics look just mediocre, Lopez was impressive in his 44 inning cameo with Washington last season, striking out 41 hitters against 47 hits and 24 walks allowed. Lopez still struggles with his command of the strike zone, but has made solid improvement in this area in the past 12 months.
Lopez has a powerful 3-pitch repertoire, featuring a 95-98mph fastball, touching 100mph, with late life and some sink. In addition, Lopez possesses an inconsistent but promising upper-70s curveball with sharp downward movement and a low-80s changeup he throws with good deception and arm speed. His off-speed offerings lag behind his monster fastball, but both pitches have improved as he has climbed the organizational ladder. His detractors are skeptical about his size and off-speed pitches, leading them to label him a future reliever. However, his elite arm speed, excellent athleticism and development on the mound give him a chance to profile as a mid-rotation starter if he continues to improve. While he has flaws, Lopez is a special arm and was the best pitching prospect in the organization prior to the trade.
Washington’s second 1st round pick (29th overall) last June, Dane Dunning spent most of his collegiate career at Florida as a midweek starter and multi-inning reliever on the weekends. A lean 6-3 205lbs, Dunning possesses a solid 3-pitch repertoire, featuring a low-90s fastball with outstanding sink, an 82-84mph slider with good depth and range, along with the occasional fringy changeup. He showed better command out of the bullpen in college, although he will be developed as a starter as a professional. The 21-year-old Dunning shows a potential long-term “60/65” fastball due to the impressive velocity and movement, a “55” slider and possible “45” changeup – this arsenal, along with a clean delivery and solid command, allows him to profile as a future back-end starter or impact 7th or 8th inning reliever.
In a vacuum, I believe Washington did significantly better in this trade than the general consensus around baseball, who have widely questioned and panned the trade. Washington traded three of its top five pitching prospects, which hurts the depth of the minor league system. But, in addition to the obvious risks associated with prospects, especially pitching prospects, each of Giolito, Lopez and Dunning have major risks associated with them.
Giolito has already undergone Tommy John surgery, does not possess ideal mechanics and looked poor in his brief time in Washington. Lopez does not have the ideal pitcher’s body and most undersized right-handed pitchers eventually end up pitching in relief. Finally, Dunning does not have a monster ceiling typically associated with a 1st round pick and many scouts predict he is a reliever long-term. Certainly this highlights the negatives with each pitcher, but it should remind us none of these three are a slam-dunks to be impact players. That said I would be surprised if all three did not have productive careers.
On the other hand, for all the risks associated with the prospects traded away, Adam Eaton is quietly one of the most consistent and better outfielders in baseball. He does not do anything spectacularly well besides his corner outfield defense, but Eaton is one of the few five tools players in the majors and is above-average offensively, defensively and on the bases. Eaton has strong bat-to-ball skills, sneaky power especially to the pull side and has a knack for getting on-base. He should slot in perfectly as Washington’s leadoff or #2 hitter with Turner, and they should drive opposing pitchers crazy in front of Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.
Defensively Eaton will immediately move back to center field between Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper next season, with the likely plan to shift him to a corner when Werth’s contract is over and center field prospect Victor Robles is major league ready. His skills, in addition to his extraordinarily team-friendly contract, make Eaton one of the more valuable players in baseball. In short, Eaton is a perfect fit for the Washington Nationals.
However, I must briefly digress and take a bigger picture view of this trade. Although Eaton is a tremendous addition, there was a large supply of talented and potentially available center fielders this winter, several of whom would not have been so “expensive” to acquire. For example, free agent Dexter Fowler is still available, not to mention possible trade targets such as Andrew McCutchen, Ender Inciarte and Jarred Dyson. So we must ask not just was this a good deal, but also was it the smartest decision overall for the franchise. Personally, I would have preferred paying Fowler or Ian Desmond, losing my 1st round pick in 2017 but keeping these three young arms in the organization. This fact cannot be overlooked when judging the trade as a whole.
Overall I think Washington did fairly well in this deal, as they acquired an underrated player perfect for their team on a great contract for the next five years. Washington had to part with three talented, high ceiling prospects in order to do so, but general manager Mike Rizzo decided to part with these somewhat risky assets for a proven commodity. An analogy would be he sold three high-risk high-reward technology stocks to buy shares of a company like IBM. So while I can understand and appreciate that decision, I would have preferred Washington invest in another asset, also known as Dexter Fowler. Therefore, while I am extremely excited to watch Adam Eaton daily for the next five years, I would have passed on this offer and looked for another alternative to fill the vacancy in center field.
NatsGM Grade -> C- / D+