Plan C: What return will the Nationals get in exchange for unloading the farm?


Dayan Viciedo, Adam EatonIt’s been a busy week down at the National Harbor, this year’s site for Major League Baseball’s annual, GM-orgy.

The winter meetings often spawn a bevy of trade rumors, if not actual results. This year, the deals have been flying by at a frenetic pace. And, it’s not only the number of players on the move that has been unusual, but the quality of them as well.

Atop that list is White Sox ace, Chris Sale. The Nationals were reportedly deep into discussions with Chicago regarding the all-star lefty – that is, until the Pale Horse’s brass turned around and dealt Sale to Boston, where he will join the Red Sox’ suddenly-stacked rotation.

The White Sox, in turn, received two of the game’s most-promising prospects, in third baseman Yoan Moncada and pitcher Michael Kopech.

The Nationals, meanwhile, were left standing at the altar for the second time in a week – as earlier trade talks with the Pirates fizzled, regarding outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

On the table was right-hander Lucas Giolito – once the jewel of the Nats’ farm system. Also in the discussion was top outfield prospect Victor Robles, pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, and pretty much any other player whose name wasn’t Trea Turner.

If you remember, these are the same prospects that were once roadblocks to the Nats acquiring Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman. Now they were being thrown into deals left and right like so much confetti. This time, however, interest seemed muted.

Undeterred, they shifted gears to plan C, dealing the same package of prospects for White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton. Eaton lacks the star power of the other names, but has made a name for himself as an analytics darling.

“We certainly got what we wanted,” Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said, Wednesday, after the teams had consummated their deal.

Did they?

Few GMs spend as much time talking out of both sides of their mouth as does Rizzo, who often seems paralyzed into inaction. Wednesday’s deal can be viewed through two prisms: A) he acted quickly to insure the Nats weren’t shut out of the meetings. B) He panicked and took the first offer he could find.

This is no knock against Eaton, whom I’m sure is an upstanding citizen who puts his pants on one leg at a time like you and I do, and pays his taxes on time (not that everyone does).

Obviously, Nationals fans are less concerned about Eaton’s tax returns than as to what he does on the diamond. And, what is that, exactly? Due to the relative-obscurity granted by playing in Chicago’s South Side, the average fan has probably never heard of Adam Eaton.

For people in the know, Eaton has developed the reputation as an all-around ballplayer. He gets on base (top 15 in the AL in 2016), has some pop (52 extra base hits) and rates-highly on defense (second in MLB in defensive value).

Assumedly, the Nats will drop him in center, which Ben Revere patrolled for one, forgettable season. It will be more interesting to see where manager Dusty Baker slots Eaton in the daily batting order.

Trea Turner’s name will be etched in permanent ink next to the one hole. Do they slot Eaton in at second, to take advantage of his on-base skills?

Turner R
Eaton L
Murphy R
Harper L
Rendon R
Werth R
Zimmerman/Robinson R/L
Norris/Lobaton R/S

Difo S
Heisey R
Taylor R

The problem with that scenario is that it makes the bottom half of the line-up slow-footed and right-hand heavy. Does he slide Eaton down to give them a better speed dispersal?

Turner R
Rendon R
Harper L
Murphy R
Eaton L
Werth R
Zim/Robinson R/L
Norris Lobaton R/S

The problem is, while Eaton can handle center, he is much better suited for a corner position. His outstanding, 2016 numbers came playing primarily as a right fielder.

In 2015, Eaton played center full-time, with less-than-impressive results. Among centerfielders who had recorded at least 700 innings (roughly half a season), Eaton ranked a distant 25th in overall, defensive value, according to Fangraphs.

In fact, his weak arm (24th overall) and average range in center (24th) aren’t that much of an upgrade from Turner, who was playing out of position. And, neither grade out as highly as Michael A. Taylor. In fact, the optimum, defensive line-up would read something like this:

Turner SS/R
Eaton RF/L
Murphy 1B/R
Harper LF/L
Rendon 2B/R
Taylor CF/R
Difo 3B/S
Norris C/R

Werth R
Robinson L
Lobaton S
Zimmerman R

Obviously, that’s not going to happen; Werth and Zimmerman will make over $35 million combined, in 2017 and there’s no way that Lerner and company would let those pennies go to waste. And Taylor has proved that, as good a fielder he is, he lacks the strike zone-discipline to be a good hitter. The Nats will have to hope that Eaton hits enough to justify his average defense.

Offensively, Eaton is somewhat of a Swiss-Army-knife. He provides a little bit of this and a little bit of that, while lacking one standout tool.

One thing he does not provide is big power. His career, groundball-flyball rate is greater than 2:1. He plated 14 home runs in 155 games, despite playing half of them at Cellular One Ballpark (now Guaranteed Rate Field), which has been historically a hitter’s park.

Despite the lack of pop, Eaton still whiffs at a fairly-high rate. His walk rate is good, but not extraordinary. He is not an efficient base-stealer, with a success rate of 66% – just barely scraping an acceptable level of value.

And, with Eaton, there is also the question of health. There is a reason why he’s 28, but has played less career games than Bryce Harper. In fact, only twice has he appeared in 125+ games. Combine that with Werth’s advanced age, and you have the makings of a brittle outfield.

The one thing Eaton definitely is, however, is cheap. A player of his reputation would receive an annual salary of $12-15 million, minimum. Eaton is under contract for what equates to less than $10 million a year.

Is it a shrewd financial move by Rizzo? Or, was he more determined to satisfy the Lerners’ eternal thirst for cheapness? Either way, it seems like a big haul to give up for Plan C.

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