Did the Nats get robbed by the White Sox?
Let’s first establish this: Mike Rizzo has been a ninja on trades over the years. His record is spectacular:
- June 2009 – Ryan Langerhans to Seattle for Michael Morse
- July 2010 – Matt Capps to Minnesota for two minor leaguers, including Wilson Ramos
- July 2010 – Cristian Guzman to Texas for two minor leaguers, including Tanner Roark
- Dec. 2011 – A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris and Brad Peacock to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez and a minor leaguer
- Nov. 2012 – Alex Meyer to Minnesota for Denard Span
- Dec. 2013 – Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi and Robbie Ray to Detroit for Doug Fister
- Dec. 2014 – Steven Souza Jr. and Travis Ott to Tampa Bay in a three-team deal that included San Diego and brought the Nats Trea Turner and Joe Ross
So there is a benefit of the doubt that Rizzo deserves on any trade he makes, including this one.
Let’s also establish this: Adam Eaton is a very good player. Among qualified major-league center fielders over the last three seasons, he ranks sixth in Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) at 12.7, ahead of the likes of Adam Jones (10.5) and not far behind Andrew McCutchen (13.3). If you by Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, Eaton had a 2016 bWAR of 6.2, which is entering into MVP territory.
And let’s also establish this: Eaton is under the terms of an exceptional contract from a club perspective. His deal makes McCutchen’s and Chris Sale’s contracts look like the Haynesworth contract. Eaton is under team control for the next five seasons at just $38.4 million, with the last two seasons being team options that total $20 million. So he is costing you just $18.4 million over the next three seasons. For a budget-conscience franchise like the Nats, this is especially important.
But there are three big problems that I have with this trade from a Nats perspective.
The first is that Rizzo gave up a lot to get a guy who the Nats don’t truly need.
Eaton, as would have been the case with McCutchen and Sale, is a luxury, not a necessity. The Nats could have gone into 2017 with Turner as their center fielder and Danny Espinosa as their shortstop and won 90 or more games. And yet the Nats made this deal, giving up two of their top three prospects according to MLB Pipeline in Giolito and Lopez and the 29th pick of the 2016 First-Year Player Draft in Dunning. The Nats reportedly were willing to give up those three players plus outfielder Victor Robles (now the Nats’ no. 1 prospect) for Sale. That’s quite a haul the White Sox have received for Eaton.
Second problem with the trade: Rizzo is violating one of the basic tenets of deal-making – buy low, sell high. He has done the exact opposite here.
Rizzo has bought high on Eaton, who is coming off the best season of his career, especially is you go by fWAR (6.0 in 2016 versus 3.7 in 2015 and 3.1 in 2014).
And Rizzo has sold low on Giolito and Lopez, who both struggled at the major-league level in 2016. It is amazing to me the extent to which the Nats soured on Giolito over just six games and 21 1/3 major-league innings. No, he did not perform well. Yes, his lack of strikeouts and dip in velocity were concerning. But there are so many examples of very good starting pitchers who got off to shaky or even terrible starts in their careers (Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Jake Arrieta). The Nats seem pretty convinced that Giolito isn’t one of those guys.
Yahoo Sports MLB insider Jeff Passan tweeted something on Wednesday evening that should trouble every Nats fan: “The Nationals were down on Lucas Giolito, and the entire industry knew it.” That’s not dealing from a position of strength. And if you’re not dealing from a position of strength, then you must ask yourself why you are dealing.
And then my third problem with the trade is that Eaton is Yoenis Cespedes defensively: good as a corner outfielder, bad as a center fielder. Eaton in 3,115 1/3 major-league innings in center field: -8 Defensive Runs Saved. He had a woeful -14 Defensive Runs Saved over 1,280 innings in center field in 2015.
The presumption is that Eaton will play center field for the Nats, although I wonder if they might consider Bryce Harper in that spot, Yes, you would be increasing Harper’s injury risk, but you also likely would be upgrading your defense. Eaton was credited with 22 Defensive Runs Saved over 980 1/3 innings in right field in 2016, during which he played far more in right field than he did in center field. Harper in center field and Eaton in right field may make for your best defensive alignment. A lineup with Eaton in center field and Turner at shortstop is an upgrade offensively but a downgrade defensively versus the lineup with Turner in center field and Espinosa at shortstop. A run saved is as good as a run earned, so if the Nats do in fact go with Eaton in center field, the question becomes does his offense make up for his defense.
One final thought: I hope no part of the Nats’ motivation for doing this trade was public relations. I have a hard time believing that Rizzo would make a move based on that, but you do have to wonder if he felt pressure from ownership. The Nats didn’t exactly “win” what were “their” winter meetings, which took place in National Harbor, MD. You had the Nats losing out on Sale, who was dealt to Boston. You had the Nats seeing Mark Melancon sign with San Francisco and Aroldis Chapman sign with the Yankees. You had the oddly-timed report from USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale that the Nats were ready to move on from Harper after 2018 due to contract demands of 10 years and $400+ million. It’s hard to ignore the circumstances that surrounded this trade.