Washington Nationals: Looking back on the Adam Eaton trade

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: Adam Eaton #2 of the Washington Nationals takes a swing in his return to the line up in the third inning during a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on June 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: Adam Eaton #2 of the Washington Nationals takes a swing in his return to the line up in the third inning during a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on June 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

With this year’s Winter Meetings on the horizon, we look back one of the deals the Washington Nationals have made at them, in the trade for Adam Eaton.

Two years ago to the day, the Washington Nationals made a big trade at the Winter Meetings to acquire outfielder Adam Eaton. Though it wasn’t quite the big addition the fans had hoped for after hearing Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen linked with the team, it was still a big deal.

To acquire Eaton from the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals had to part with pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. The idea was that Eaton would patrol centerfield with Jayson Werth in leftfield and Bryce Harper in rightfield to form an impressive trio.

However, at the time, it seemed a steep price to pay, with Giolito one of the best prospects in all of baseball, Lopez already in the majors and Dunning a former first-round pick. So, with a reasonable amount of time in the books, we look at both sides of the trade and see how both teams are getting on so far.

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The Nationals side of the trade

When he’s been on the field, the Nationals have gotten pretty close to what they expected from Adam Eaton. Excellent on-base skills as a leadoff hitter, a solid defender and someone who is going to play at 110% for nine innings. In his 118 games with the Nats, he’s slashed .300/.394/.422 with seven home runs and 12 stolen bases, providing a 2.4 fWAR in that time.

His only problem has been staying on the field. After playing just 23 games in his first season in D.C. he tore his ACL and was out for the rest of the season. Then, he returned to start the 2018 season, only to once again be sidelined for just under two months with a left ankle injury. These injuries have forced him away from centerfield and likely into rightfield for the foreseeable future.

Thankfully, Eaton still has three years of club control remaining on his contract, with team options for 2020 and 2021, meaning there’s plenty of time for him to turn things around. Assuming Bryce Harper leaves for a different team this offseason, you can likely expect Eaton to be the Opening Day right-fielder and leadoff hitter, where he’ll be there getting on-base for his teammates. Having played over 150 games in his final two seasons for the White Sox, hopefully, his first two years in D.C. are anomalies and not a trend.

The White Sox end of the trade

So given how much Eaton has struggled to stay healthy with the Nats, that must mean the White Sox won the trade right? Well, it’s not that simple when you look at how the three pitchers have fared so far with their new organization.

We start off with Lucas Giolito, who was meant to be the centerpiece of the deal, as his stock has fallen drastically since the deal. According to FanGraphs, Giolito had the lowest WAR of all qualified pitchers last season with -0.2 as he posted a woeful 6.13 ERA in 32 starts. His stuff appears to be slowly declining and hitters are squaring him up a lot more, so while he may still be a useful rotation member down the road, he’s not the frontline ace the White Sox hoped for.

While Giolito has fallen way short of expectations, Reynaldo Lopez has arguably lived up to his so far. In 40 big league starts with the Sox, he’s recorded a 4.07 ERA and an ERA+ of 104, meaning he’s been just above average for them. He always profiled as a mid-rotation starter and with five more years of control, he should continue to be a good, but not great asset moving forward.

Finally, we have the still unknown major league quantity in Dane Dunning. MLB.com has him ranked as the 59th best prospect in baseball as he reached Double-A last season, posting a 2.76 ERA in 11 starts for the Birmingham Barons before his season was cut short by a moderate elbow sprain.  The right-hander could be set to make his big league debut in 2019 if all goes according to plan, but all signs point to him being a success and likely the best player in this trade for Chicago.

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Overall, the Nats are actually still well positioned to do well out of this deal as Giolito’s diminishing stock is the key part that has swung this into the Nats’ favor. If Eaton can stay healthy for most of the 162 game slate, then he could end up being one of the more underrated outfielders in the National League.

The real swing-point for this deal now is likely to be how Dunning’s major league career turns out in Chicago. If he can live up to his potential, then the White Sox will end up with the better end of the deal, but if he heads down a similar path to Giolito, then the Nationals will likely have “won” the trade consummated two years ago.

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Adam Eaton still has a chance to make an impact for the Washington Nationals in the last three years of his deal with the team. But this trade appears to have achieved exactly what it was designed to, in filling the potential gap, as best as possible, left by Harper.