— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) December 10, 2016
The most underrated player in MLB? A Nats WinterFest Question: What did you ask Santa for this year? “A World Series.” –
Admittedly, I was in disbelief when the news came down that Giolito, Lopez and Dunning would be headed to the Windy City in exchange for a scrappy little outfielder. It was blatant highway robbery, I thought. In what universe could that trade be considered balanced? The more I pondered this so-called galactic mistake, the more cosmic sense it made to me.
As addressed before, the Nationals were in need of a true centerfield option. It was an underwhelming patchwork platoon for most of the 2016 season until Turner emerged. Even then, it was a less than sticky band aid.
If you remove Turner’s production across 44 games started in CF and look strictly at Revere and Taylor’s production, it was dreadful. Across 114 games combined in CF, Revere and Taylor posted a slash line of:
Those are far and away the worst offensive marks in MLB. But, what about their defensive prowess? The duo managed a -2.0 DRS in centerfield. Even with Turner, the centerfield unit only posted the same -2.0 DRS. Over the course of 2016, the entire outfield put forth a sub-par -12 DRS (22nd in MLB).
Compounding the lack of offensive and defensive production in CF, the team also suffered substantially at SS. Despite Espinosa’s 24 home runs and Turner’s late season uptick, the team carried the distinction of have the highest K%, lowest batting average, 15th worst OBP and 17th worst WRC+ at the position.
With the non-tender of Revere, an organization preference for Turner manning the infield and a deserved lack of faith in Espinosa, Rizzo needed to make a move. Fast.
Enter Adam Eaton.
You can forgive yourself if the name didn’t ring any bells at first. Originally drafted by the down-and-out Diamondbacks and playing the last three years with the wayward White Sox, he is far from a familiar name who has never been put on an All-Star team, and even given his exceptional stats in the 2016 only was voted 19th in the MVP vote. That lack of recognition sparked the immediate jaw-dropping disbelief. Rizzo essentially shipped his best pitching prospects off for a gritty, 5 foot 8 inch player affectionately named “Spanky.” Not exactly the most inspiring set of circumstances.
At first glance the trade makes you want to scream “For The Love Of Spanky!”. But, I have something shocking to share with you: Adam Eaton may be the most underrated player in baseball. Believe me, you’ll be saying “Go Spanky!” soon enough. Hear me out.
Eaton has five seasons of MLB service time and has been an entrenched starter in Chicago since 2014. Over the past three seasons, he has posted offensive averages of:
These numbers may look a bit unimpressive, but when compared against other qualified hitters and outfielders across that time span, Eaton’s value becomes increasingly apparent.
Based on these numbers, Eaton is easily considered a Top 10 (if not Top 5) centerfielder in the game and a Top 50 player in MLB. There is no doubt that he is an above average player. But, what about a star or *gulp* a superstar? According to Fangraphs, a WAR of over 4.0 indicates star status – Eaton has averaged 4.3 – and a WAR of 5.0 or over calls for superstardom – Eaton posted a 6.2 last season…which is MVP level. Across all hitters in MLB the past three seasons, Eaton has a higher WAR than All-Stars such as Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter, Jose Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Todd Frazier, Daniel Murphy, David Ortiz, Dexter Fowler, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Zobrist, Jose Abreu, Charlie Blackmon, Chris Davis and Adrian Gonzalez.
Even more impressive, Eaton put up those numbers mired in a White Sox lineup that ranked 24th in runs scored over the last three seasons, dead last in offensive WAR, 21st in WRC+, 9th worst in K%, 27th in OBP and 24th in RBI. It’s a miracle that Eaton even approached the numbers he did with no protection and no one to drive him in. He almost single-handily manufactured his production. Now, imagine what he could do in a Nationals lineup featuring Turner, Murphy, Harper, Werth, Rendon and crew – a group that produced six players with 20+ home runs.
And, we haven’t even talked about his defensive ability. He has a +17 DRS (defensive runs saved) over the past three seasons (that ranks 17th among all qualified outfielders) and he led all MLB in outfield assists (18) in 2016 and is 3rd in MLB over the past three seasons with 35 (only behind Cespedes and Marte, who have 38 and 37 respectively). To put that in perspective, let’s remember that Eaton is only 5’8” and 185 lbs. and Marte and Cespedes tower at 6’0” and 200 lbs. and are both considered to have howitzers for arms.
Eaton did all of these defensive feats the past few years, and you have to consider the pinched nerve in his shoulder in 2015 that was so painful that he spend many nights sleeping in an upright position.
“But like I said, people really want to harp on ‘15, where I was very poor,” Adam Eaton said today. “I don’t like to harp on the negative, either. So I think that I’m definitely the ‘14 player. If I’m in right, hopefully I’m the ‘16 player. And when I’m in center, hopefully I’m the ‘14 [player]. I think I’m very capable of playing all three [outfield positions].”
Now, you may be asking yourself “why did we have to give up our best pitching prospects for him when we could have just signed a free agent centerfielder?” The honest answer? Eaton was head and shoulders (all 5 foot 8 inches of him) above the other options. When comparing him to the oft-speculated FA, trade targets, as well as past and current Nationals, we can see that Eaton is elite.
Eaton’s status as a near elite player, and he just turned 28-years-old this week. Combined with his friendly contract (he is only due 4.7 million/year for the next four seasons), made him an extremely appealing option for the Nationals. Yes, the team gave up a treasure trove of pitching. However, both Giolito and Dunning have a history of injuries and Tommy John surgery. With the organization’s past surrounding Strasburg, they may have been concerned and wanted to move on. As for Lopez, he did show a lack of command, elevated pitch counts and an inability to go deep into games. Furthermore, the Nationals were trading away from a strength. The 2016 Nationals had the 2nd best starting rotation and bullpen ERA in MLB without any of the aforementioned players making a major contribution.
Given the Nationals league-worst production in centerfield and shortstop, a move in centerfield may have been a higher priority than previously thought. Now that the centerfield void is filled, it’s more than likely that the Nationals will make a move to sign a closer (at this point, Jansen). Due to Eaton’s small contract, the Nationals have opened up a larger financial margin to acquire him. If they had opted for Fowler, McCutchen, Desmond, etc., the team would have needed to shell out in excess of 15+ million/year.
As with any trade, only time will tell who came out on the better end. However, there is no doubt…
Adam “Spanky” Eaton is a legitimate star, borderline superstar and possibly the most underrated player in MLB like it or not. There you have it, folks.