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Nationals trade for Adam Eaton, send their future to the White Sox

The Nationals send pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning to the White Sox in return for outfielder Adam Eaton.

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Nationals traded for Adam Eaton, and Bryce Harper sums it up best:

Washington addressed one of its biggest needs this offseason by trading for the White Sox outfielder. After non-tendering Ben Revere, their stop-gap solution, the Nationals did not have a full-time center fielder. That outfield question mark is why Adam Eaton was so appealing.

Year PA wRC+ BsR Def (FanGraphs)
2014 538 118 1.70 -1.60
2015 689 119 5.50 -8.80
2016 706 115 4.40 18.0

His baserunning has been solidly above-average the past two years, making him a good fit for the top of a lineup featuring UBR king Jayson Werth and the speedy Trea Turner. Eaton has consistently batted above .280, with double-digit home runs in each of the last two seasons, giving him a solidly above-average wRC+ in each of his three years in Chicago. In May, people were lining up to say he was the best right fielder in baseball. Say what?

Take a look at that final column, and you will find there is an exponential jump in Eaton’s defensive prowess. What adjustment caused such a dramatic swing in those numbers? The White Sox moved him to right field. This makes sense if the Nationals are in need of a right fielder. Perhaps they just forgot about this guy:

There are two ways to approach this trade.

1) They acquired a right fielder to play center field for one season before moving to a corner spot.

2) They acquired a below-average center fielder for their three best pitching prospects.

Lucas Giolito was the Nationals’ top pitching prospect. Baseball America ranked him #4 overall on their mid-season top 100 prospects list. He made his major league debut in 2016, and although he comes with minor command issues, he will be a solid arm for the White Sox rotation in the near future. Reynaldo Lopez is going to be a starter and ranked #48 on that same top 100 list. He features an exciting curveball with a fastball that is typically in the high nineties. (It reached 100 MPH during the futures game.) Dunning, the final piece in this trade, was the 29th overall pick of the 2016 draft.

Of course, prospects are never a sure thing. Giolito was pitching well against minor league ballplayers, but the first three batters he faced in the majors were Curtis Granderson, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Yoenis Céspedes. That’s quite the jump. The hype and hope for young pitchers can be overly exuberant or downright wrong. The Nationals gave up a gold mine of potential, but the White Sox might end up with coal in their Christmas stockings if these three prospects don’t meet expectations. The Nationals traded in future potential for a proven big-leaguer right now. This fits the “win before Bryce leaves town in two years” game plan.

Adam Eaton has five years of team control remaining on his contract. This is a huge incentive for the Nats because Werth is a free agent after the 2017 season and, as noted, Harper is a free agent after 2018. Eaton guarantees them an outfield piece at a bargain price in 2019 and beyond. The question then becomes: Is one future outfielder worth pretty much the entire future of Nationals pitching?

General Manager Mike Rizzo bet that it is.