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Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

Why the Adam Eaton trade isn’t so bad for the Washington Nationals

Last week, the Washington Nationals made a risky move dealing top prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning in exchange for outfielder Adam Eaton. On the surface, the move seems inane from Washington’s perspective and reeks of a panic move. But digging deeper, the move begins to make more sense.

Eaton, 28, is under team control through 2021 with a very team-friendly contract. In fact, over the next three years, Eaton will only cost the Nationals a relatively paltry $18.4 million. It’s very possible — I would argue likely — that Eaton will provide the Nats with surplus value in just the first year of his contract. Just last season, Eaton was worth $48.1 million according to Fangraphs’ dollars calculator.1  In the latter two years of his contract, 2020 and 2021, the Nats have very affordable club options for $9.5 million and $10.5 million, respectively. In other words, even in the event that Eaton suddenly has his talent siphoned away by the Monstars, the Nationals only have $18.4 million committed to him.

Barring Space Jam intervening, however, Eaton seems like a surefire bet to produce at a significantly higher level than his AAV dictates. Since Eaton’s contract is well-below market value, the Nats have the flexibility to pursue another upper-echelon talent for 2017 without breaking the vaunted luxury tax threshold.

 

adam eaton washington nationals

Not surprisingly, Adam Eaton is on base in this picture. (Photo: Keith Allison)

That could explain why the Nats opted to pay the lofty prospect price tag for Eaton in lieu of pursuing Dexter Fowler, a similar player to Eaton. While the Nationals struck out in their pursuit of relief ace Kenley Jansen, they still have numerous avenues to drastically improve the roster, in large part because of the positional flexibility of their infielders. While first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has been the face of the franchise for years, his best years are behind him, and that’s putting it nicely. The Nats could sign one of the remaining free agent sluggers — Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo, or Mike Napoli — and roll with a lineup that looks something like this:

  1. Eaton CF
  2. Turner SS
  3. Murphy 2B
  4. Encarnacion/Bautista/Trumbo/Napoli 1B
  5. Harper RF
  6. Rendon 3B
  7. Werth LF
  8. Norris C

Not to get ahead of myself with hypotheticals, but that looks like the best lineup in the National League to me. But if the Nationals opt not to pony up the cash necessary to sign one of these sluggers, they could opt to trade for an impact player like Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Due to the aforementioned positional flexibility of the Nats, this could work, with Murphy shifting to first base.

And the Nationals still need a closer. Perhaps they can ink the recovering Greg Holland and see if he can revert to being an elite bullpen arm. Or maybe they trade for White Sox RHP David Robertson or Rays RHP Alex Colome.

I have no idea what the Nationals will do, nor will I pretend to, but the point is the Nats have options that they wouldn’t otherwise have had they signed Fowler.

With that said, it’s important to note that Eaton’s stellar 2016 performance was largely buoyed by exceptional defensive metrics in right field. While we know what Eaton brings to the table as an offensive player  — a .360 OBP, excellent baserunning, and decent power — given his consistency over the last three years, his defensive ability is still up for debate. The numbers weren’t particularly fond of Eaton in center field in 2014 and 2015, which caused his fWAR those seasons to be “only” 3.1 and 3.7, respectively. Is Eaton a great defender, below-average, or somewhere in between?Using the so-called eye test, I say he’s an above-average defender, one who’s not quite as good as his 2016 numbers would indicate, but not nearly as poor as his numbers in the preceding years seem to demonstrate.

Regardless of what Eaton’s true defensive value is, he represents a clear upgrade defensively for the Nationals, who played precocious rookie Trea Turner, an infielder by trade, out of position in center field down the stretch. Despite his blazing speed, Turner struggled at times with route efficiency and should benefit from moving to his natural shortstop position full-time in 2017.

Offensively, Turner will form a dynamic tandem with Eaton at the top of the Nationals lineup. With both players possessing excellent contact skills, speed, and baserunning instincts, Manager Dusty Baker will have a field day calling hit-and-runs in 2017. And with two of the preeminent hitters in the game — Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper — behind this dynamic duo in the lineup, Eaton and Turner figure to score runs at a rapid pace for Washington.

With the loss of slugger Wilson Ramos (.850 OPS last season) to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Nationals needed to fortify their lineup and they did so in a big way with the acquisition of Eaton.


1: This figure converts a player’s WAR (6.0 in Eaton’s case) to an estimate of the player’s worth on the free agent market.

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Updated: March 26, 2017 — 6:28 pm

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