Closing the book on the Adam Eaton trade

As far as the White Sox were concerned, they didn’t need to sign Adam Eaton to a one-year deal in order to settle the other half of the franchise-altering trade with Washington four Decembers ago. The Nationals officially wrapped up their part by declining Eaton’s $10.5 million option to open the offseason. The tabulation stops here.

Hindsight smiles upon the White Sox, who traded Eaton at the perfect time. They can’t be credited with knowing Eaton’s knee would explode on a bad step at first base in his first month with the Nationals, but his tendency to get banged up factored into their comfort letting him go, not to mention all the extracurricular events that suggested the clubhouse required fumigation.

But the Nationals also won’t be second-guessing themselves, because even though Eaton’s five years of team control fizzled after four, they had already gotten what they’d needed from the maneuver. It’s a win-win trade, although not at the scale both teams envisioned.

What do the White Sox have to show for it?

At one point, the White Sox appeared to have three starters under team control for seven years apiece. Outside of encouraging-but-peripherally-shaky debuts late in the 2017 season, the Sox couldn’t quite get two of them going at the same time, at least in a way that felt bankable. In 2018, López looked like a capable mid-rotation starter, while Giolito was the league’s worst regular, and Dunning was a couple years away.

In 2019, that script flipped. López’s underwhelming strikeout rate and iffy fly ball numbers caught up to him, and he led the league in earned runs allowed. Giolito famously turned his upside-down career right side up, winning Cy Young votes a year after hitting rock bottom. Dunning appeared on track for perhaps a September call-up until elbow problems surfaced during the second half. He staved off medical intervention during the calendar year, but he couldn’t resume throwing with intent the following spring and underwent Tommy John surgery.

Dunning was the only part that changed in 2020. Giolito bolstered his standing with a similar season, while López suffered shoulder soreness in his first start that prevented him from ever getting on track. Dunning managed to recover from Tommy John surgery despite the lack of a proper minor-league season offering a gradual rehab ramp-up, impressing well enough to be the main piece dealt to Texas in the Lance Lynn trade.

What do the Nationals have to show for it?

Only one of Eaton’s four seasons in Washington was fully healthy, but he managed to make it count. He played 151 games in 2019, hitting .279/.365/.428 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases. He didn’t exactly fill Bryce Harper’s shoes in right field, but thanks to Juan Soto’s explosion, the Nationals only needed competence.

Eaton saved his impact for the biggest stage, going 8-for-25 with two homers and four walks in the seven-game victory over Houston. He hit a game-breaking homer off Justin Verlander in Game 6, then put Game 7 out of reach with a two-run single. Thanks to his contributions, the Nationals won the World Series, and sealed a win of the trade on their side.

Had the Nationals fallen short that year, the trade would’ve been a disappointment. The knee injury that Eaton suffered his first month in Washington lowered his ceiling considerably, and he only ended up playing a total of 159 games over the other three seasons. The on-base percentage remained admirable, but his defense abilities dropped off in right field, and a slow start and multiple injuries turned his 2020 season into 41 miserable games that led to his early exit.

Flags fly forever, though, and any baseball fan will tell you that all 1-for-4 performances are not alike. Eaton leveraged his hit about as well as he possibly could.

What does the scoreboard say?

PlayerbWARfWAR
Adam Eaton2.24.2
Lucas Giolito7.07.5
Reynaldo López3.54.7
Dane Dunning0.10.7
Nationals2.24.2
White Sox10.612.9


What does the scoreboard not say?

On Washington’s side, it doesn’t include Eaton’s performance in the World Series. They’re fine.

For the White Sox, post-surgery John Danks will forever serve as my example that it takes a certain level of talent to qualify for the ERA title, even if that ERA happens to be one of the worst in the league. Giolito and López’s WAR totals were able to absorb the setbacks because they managed to combine for 360 innings in their individual 162-game disappointments. That serves a purpose, but post-surgery John Danks also shows that it doesn’t have much in the way of impact on a non-stacked team, or trade value for one. Those pitchers can cross a day off a calendar with that kind of talent, but not much else.

With López facing a challenging road to redemption and Dunning shipped out of the organization, the trade isn’t quite the coup White Sox fans hoped for. Instead, it primarily accomplished time-shifting. The White Sox turned a great player who was under team control through 2021 into a great player who is currently under team control through 2023, albeit one who is on track to start earning $10 million or more starting in 2022. A Giolito extension won’t be the no-brainer bargain of a Chris Sale or Jose Quintana, or else the White Sox would have signed him to one already.

Giolito won’t have to carry all the weight of this deal by himself, because Lynn will have something to say for 2021. While Dunning’s stay in Chicago was brief, he turned into a player the White Sox didn’t have before — specifically a player who could traded for the league’s workingest horse. If Giolito and Lynn both meet expectations, the White Sox will finally have two players contributing to a contender instead of one, which is what the trade set out to accomplish in the first place.

Summary

For all the attention we give years of team control, it’s worth noting when the completed puzzle fails to be as vivid as the photo on the box. Across town, the Cubs are treating the final year they manipulated out of Kris Bryant as a millstone, because his Super Two status resulted in a considerable $19 million salary projection for 2021. Here, Eaton’s once-desirable fifth year of team control became easy for the Nats to forgo. Reynaldo López almost didn’t make it to his first arbitration year on the other side of the deal.

That’s not to say teams shouldn’t attempt to lock down young players for as long as possible, but maybe not at the expense of immediate, attainable goals. The White Sox are now where the Nationals were, where any heights they can accomplish in the next two to three years will have far more impact on their franchise than whether Nick Madrigal becomes a free agent in 2027 instead of 2028. All hands are on deck.

And so is Eaton. The White Sox kinda acted like they retained Eaton’s final option year all along, bringing him back for an $8 million commitment, or $1 million less than the Nationals’ decision (they had to pay him a $1.5 million buyout). Like the Nationals, they’re not seeking sneaky stardom, but rather somebody who can play second (or third) banana in the outfield. In Washington, Juan Soto did the lifting. Here, the White Sox are hoping for big-time breakouts from Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert that will allow even an average Eaton to play up. Ample reason for skepticism remains, but it’d be a pretty nifty cap on the deal if it all works out. Whatever version of Eaton returns won’t be as relevant Giolito and Lynn, who are the last remaining reliable products of the Eaton trade itself.

(Photo by Ian D’Andrea)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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HallofFrank

Great summary but a nitpick: I wouldn’t call it a win-win. The Nats lost the deal. The Sox got what looks to be a perennial Cy Young contender for a guy worth 4.2 fWAR over 4 seasons. Even isolating Eaton’s DC years, a player from the Sox side of the deal outperformed (by fWAR) Eaton in each of his four years (Lopez in ’17 & ’18, Giolito in ’19, Dunning & Giolito ’20).

As good as Eaton was in the WS, you’d expect Giolito to be just as good (if not better). This trade is so much different, for instance, than Gleyber for Aroldis. Gleyber surpasses Chapman in total value but Aroldis helped the Cubs win the WS that year in a way Gleyber couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have. Of course, we’ll never know how it would have turned out (butterfly effect and all that) in a different world but Giolito was the better player the year the Nats won and they would have been better with him. The Sox clearly got the better of the Nats in this deal.

Last edited 1 year ago by HallofFrank
HallofFrank

Sure. And I gotta think the Nats regret it. They should still win in 2019 and it may cost them a playoff spot in 2020 (the formula of: + Giolito + Dunning – Eaton has to make it close).

NDSox12

This is probably a fruitless exercise, but I’m not even sure Giolito would have been in the Nats rotation in ’19 if he had a similarly terrible ’18 in D.C. (or AAA) as he did with the Sox. Or maybe they don’t sign Corbin, who was also a critical part of that squad.

HallofFrank

Sure, as I say above: butterfly effect and all that. If the trade never happens, who knows how it turns out. But based on what we do know (which is the only way I know how to evaluate the trade), the Nats would be better off now—and would have been better off each of the last four years—if they hadn’t accepted.

HallofFrank

And they would have regretted that one, too.

As I say, just a nitpick. If I were a Nats fan, I’d sure feel like the Nats got the fuzzy end of that lollipop and, if I were Rizzo, I’d regret it. But maybe I’m the only one.

mikeyb

If Dane Dunning turns into an All-Star but Lance Lynn pitches us to a World Series title this year, I will be over the moon (and I’m currently on the side of thinking it was a bad trade for the Sox). I will call that trade a win-win without a doubt.

HallofFrank

But what if Dunning is significantly better than Lance Lynn this year? Because that’s what we’re talking about. In that case, yes I would say the Sox lost.

Again, I agree with the principle you all are using: the WS makes it worth it. So, although Gleyber will end up being worth way more than a half-season of Aroldis, that trade is a win-win because the Cubs don’t win without Aroldis and they got their banner.

But the key distinction here: the Nats won *in spite of* having Eaton instead of Giolito, not because of it. Giolito was clearly the better player the year the Nats won.

And it’s not like Eaton was WS MVP. According to BR, his Championship Win Probability Added was 3.35%. That’s good for *ninth* on the team and well below the top three, who were all over 20%.

knoxfire30

He hit 320 with 2 homers, 5 runs scored and 6 rbi in the ws…. thats a win. Flags fly forever, they won it all thats literally all that matters.

Last edited 1 year ago by knoxfire30
HallofFrank

I agree with you, I just don’t think switching Giolito for Eaton hurts the Nats.

Suppose the Shields-Tatis Jr. trade happened in 2018 and, in 2019, Shields was decent all season, had two solid starts in the WS to back a WS win for the Sox. Would you regret the deal? I still would. Because even in 2019 Tatis was soooo much better than hypothetical-Shields and swapping the two should increase (not decrease) the Sox chances of winning.

John SF

the nats were trading giolito that winter no matter what. he did not look like someone whose prospect stock was headed the right direction, and they did not have the innings to give him at MLB that we did necessary for his turn around.

do the nats wish they had traded Gio/Lopey/Dunning for a BETTER player than Adam? Yeah. Probably. But all trades come with some injury type risk, and Eaton was healthy the time that it mattered for them which is all they really wanted anyway.

It’s not an even trade, obviously. And Jim isn’t arguing that it is. But it’s a win/win.

HallofFrank

On trading Giolito no matter what… so what? If Hahn had decided he was going to trade Tatis Jr. no matter what because, I don’t know, the Sox have Tim Anderson, that doesn’t mean there is no regret or no clear winner.

I agree there is risk with any trade. I think it was a good idea for Rizzo at the time, so I’m not blaming him. But some trades you look back on with hindsight and think, “we lost that one. I wish I had it back.” If I were Rizzo, this would be one of those trades.

christmastime

Not sure Lucas would have been in the Nats rotation but I’m pretty sure Reynaldo would have been. Lopez was a top 30 innings eater in 2018 and 2019. If Katz can tweak him Lopez can still be a difference maker for the Sox.

denny

MLB reporting today that Marlins looking for left-handed hitting RF. Can W Sox trade Adam Eaton to Fla?