December 7, 2016, it was a Wednesday evening and the dust was barely settled from the blockbuster trade of Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox the afternoon prior, but White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn stole the headlines of the day once again when he traded Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals for a trio of pitching prospects.
With fans still processing the White Sox moving the face of their franchise to Boston in exchange for baseball’s top prospect Yoan Moncada and three other players, Rick Hahn struck the second deal in the accelerated churning of the roster and farm system by trading Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.
Fans were still trying to scour scouting reports to learn more about the haul from Boston, and the very next evening they had more new faces to study.
The Loss: Adam Eaton
Adam Eaton was certainly a fan-favorite in Chicago, known for his grit and hustle in the outfield and the base-paths, as well as his spunky nature overall. I think we all have the image of Eaton blowing a bubble of gum as he connected on a long-ball imprinted in our minds when we think of “Spanky” and his tenure on the Southside of Chicago.
Despite many believing the Nationals were fleeced in the deal, Eaton’s metrics and his Gold Glove caliber defense in right field were enough to make the Nats’ believe that he was the man for the job as they searched for answers after another NLDS defeat in 2016.
Eaton began his 2017 campaign in Washington by hitting .297 with a slash line of .393/.462/.854 with seven doubles, a triple, two home runs and 13 RBI in 23 games for the Nationals, giving Washington exactly what they thought they were getting in the Winter prior; a speedy outfielder who can anchor the top of the order and produce runs.
Unfortunately for Eaton and the Nationals, the 29-year old outfielder buckled in pain after stretching to the bag to beat out a close play at first base in a 7-5 loss to the New York Mets on April 29, 2017. The loss of Eaton for the season with what was eventually diagnosed as a torn ACL was a blow to the Nationals.
In his short time in Washington, much like in Chicago, Eaton was producing and becoming a fan and clubhouse favorite. Ryan Zimmerman had this to say about the loss of Eaton after the injury in late April;
“When we traded those guys for him, everyone freaked out and said it was the worst trade of all time and this stuff,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But he came over here and did everything expected and more, which is hard to do when you get traded for guys like that and everyone puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Clearly a vote of confidence from the longest tenured Washington National’ Ryan Zimmerman. Entering his age 29 season this Spring, Eaton will be back in Washington looking to pick up where he left off, once again trying to get the Nationals past the NLDS after another early exit, this time at the hands of the Chicago Cubs this past October.
The Return: A Trio of Pitching Prospects
Lucas Giolito was the headliner in the Eaton deal for the White Sox, coming to town as a once highly-touted pitching prospect who had fallen out of grace in Washington after struggling in his brief stint at the major-league level late in 2016. With the White Sox, the first thing that Don Cooper and the staff did was recognize that Washington had directed Giolito to modify his delivery and mechanics, which Giolito admitted was problematic for him.
By no means was the fix as simple as telling Giolito to go back to what works for him, and Giolito struggled early and often in Spring Training and with the Charlotte Knights in 2017. Lacking command and confidence in himself after a whirlwind year that included redefining his mechanics, struggling in the majors, getting traded by his original team and then being told to change his mechanics once again.
Giolito was open throughout the year about his struggle to remain confident in himself and the process after a turbulent year, but credited a rehab stint for James Shields in Charlotte as a turning point for him mentally in 2017. Whatever Giolito and the veteran Shields talked about, it worked. Giolito threw a no-hitter in Charlotte in 2017 and turned his season around in time to earn a promotion to the major-league level in late August.
On August 22, Giolito made his major-league debut against the Minnesota Twins, allowing four runs on six hits in six innings of work in a losing effort. After the Minnesota game, Giolito won his next two starts and eventually finished the season with a 4-3 record in seven starts to go along with an impressive 2.38 ERA. As it stands, Giolito will likely be the anchor of the White Sox rotation in 2018 with Carlos Rodon likely to open the season on the disabled list.
Reynaldo Lopez was seen as the most major-league ready of the trio of arms when the White Sox acquired the three from Washington last winter, and that held true as Lopez was the first of the three to reach the big league club in early August. Lopez gave up two runs on four hits in six innings in his debut on August 11 against the Kansas City Royals, and looked good early on.
Lopez eventually struggled with some minor but nagging injuries in his first stint with the White Sox and finished the season with a 5-3 record and a 4.72 ERA, winning each of his final four starts of the season when he began to feel better. Lopez struck out 30 opposing hitters in 47.2 innings of work in 2017, and often displayed wipe-out caliber stuff. The one concern that Lopez carries into 2018 is his command, something that most young pitchers struggle with, especially those with heavy movement on their secondary pitches.
The final player in the return for Adam Eaton was Dane Dunning, the Nationals first round draft choice in 2016 out of the University of Florida. Dunning was assigned to Kannapolis to open the season and was nearly un-hittable at the Single-A level, going 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA in his four starts in Kannapolis.
Dunning fanned 33 opposing hitters in 26 innings while walking only two and allowing only 13 hits during his brief stay with the Intimidators before being quickly reassigned to Single-A Advanced Winston-Salem.
After initially struggling after his quick promotion, Dunning finished the season in Winston-Salem, making 26 starts and amassing a 6-8 record with a 3.51 ERA through 118 innings of work with the Dash. Dunning struck out 135 hitters compared to just 36 walks with Winston-Salem and averaged 10.3 K/9. Dunning also allowed a home run per game on average, a number he would like to see shrink in 2018, but overall the former first round pick firmly established himself as a future piece of the White Sox plans.
While it’s hard to call a clear-cut winner this early, I’d have to believe that if two of the three arms that Washington gave up for Eaton become main-stays in the Chicago rotation of bullpen, then the White Sox indeed won the deal in the end.
I don’t think that the deal was as lopsided as some national media did, pretty much devaluing Adam Eaton and everything that he brings to the table in the days and weeks after the trade, but I do think that no matter what Eaton does in Washington it will never match two or three successful major-league arms in the long run.
So, at the end of the day, Slick Rick (Hahn) gets the “W” on this one. Let’s just hope he doesn’t eat it at a press conference a la Joe Flacco this past weekend, gross.