White Sox need Adam Eaton's talent before his edge

Adam Eaton on his commute to Chase Field last year. - Christian Petersen

'Dirtbag' style of play is an asset, but only if he can stay on the field

A day after Rick Hahn said the winter meetings weren't necessary for stimulating trade talks, a three-way trade with the Angels and Diamondbacks may have contradicted him.

The deal that brought Adam Eaton to Chicago and sent Hector Santiago to the Angels wasn't an eternity in the making. Arizona GM Kevin Towers said the three-team idea "came together rather quick." Maybe because Hahn, Towers and Angels GM Jerry Dipoto were all in the same room?

Or maybe Towers just likes rolling with an idea. After all, he and Kenny Williams opened and closed the Jake Peavy deal within an hour of the trade deadline back in 2009.

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Hahn said the Sox had an interest in Eaton for quite some time, and used some colorful phrases to describe his style of play:

"This is a dirt bag baseball player," Hahn said. "This is a guy who has been described to me (by Kevin Towers) with words I can’t use. But looking to give us an edge that we were lacking a little bit in recent months. He’s a real nice kid for us."

I know the Sox have a reason for selling hustletude and grinderguts and gritsmanship and struggleface, but I'd hope either the club's brass or Eaton will be able to put his skills front and center, because the Sox need that more. As the roster stands, edge is a bonus -- good players are a necessity. Grit without talent leads to self-flagellation.

And his skills do fit, especially if he can stick in center field. Rick Hahn called his defense "solid," which is an adjective I've learned to loathe, because it's used to describe anything from "adequate" to "high-quality." And we need a more precise term, because as we saw in the reaction roundup, there really isn't a consensus on his defense, regarding his reads or his arm. At least with the latter, Hahn did say he anticipates that his arm will regain its strength that allowed him to make throws like this one:

The rest of his toolbox diversifies the roster as much as re-signing Paul Konerko didn't. We know he plays an up-the-middle position to some degree, and that he's left-handed. His minor-league track record suggests he annoys the piss out of pitchers and runs the bases well. The Sox need all of that, and as cheaply as possible, because they've been operating without a foundation.

With a few swift moves -- trading for Avisail Garcia, signing Jose Abreu, now trading for Eaton -- they may have a roster that can generate year-to-year momentum; something that can be added to or modified. It's a welcome change from previous years, when the Sox tried fixing their roster like they would an old Nintendo. Sure, they could try postponing judgment day for center field by taking out Alejandro De Aza, blowing air into him and plugging him back into the system, but it's a finger-crossing acknowledgement that his best days -- or at least his best value days -- are behind him.

Eaton gives the Sox a reasonable shot at improving on De Aza's skills across the board, and for a projectable period of time. If he turned into Brett Gardner, that would be incredible. If he "only" turned into David DeJesus, that would be merely great, because the Sox haven't matriculated a DeJesus-quality player through their system since Joe Crede. Pre-arb DeJesus would be a godsend for this roster, and easily worth Santiago, given the organization's strengths.

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It's sad to see Santiago go, and not just because of his tremendous work off the field. As a versatile lefty with heat and some bat-missing ability, he's somebody worth having on any roster, even if he weren't so damn fan-friendly.

At the same time, he's not the easiest pitcher to harness. He's game for relief work, but he pitched better when he had a time to get a feel for his pitches and find a correct adrenaline level. As his time in the closer role proved, that's not ideal for high leverage. At the same time, while he could overcome those sluggish starts over multiple innings, it hampered his ability to work deep into games.

What he did with the Sox is admirable, considering Robin Ventura used him irregularly. He handled every assignment with a terrific attitude, and with some stability, he might be able to settle down and really develop some polish. However, his past walk rates suggest that he can't tighten up his command all that much -- at least without risking increased hittability -- so he's required to walk the tightrope. He's done it well so far, but it's not clear if it's repeatable.

It's always better to trade a guy a year too early than a year too late, but it's especially true with Santiago. He's built such a weird career that one bad stretch could turn him from a starter to a middle reliever. Maybe the White Sox didn't sell him at his highest, but it's easy enough to envision they did.

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Gardner, DeJesus, or a comp to be named later, it's imperative that Eaton turns into somebody by the end of 2014. The Sox might have the luxury of using their pitching development system to cover for their inability to produce position players, but they can't afford to throw pitchers away.

Health is the first key, and that's why the "dirtbag" talk makes me nervous, because Arizona manger Kirk Gibson had to negotiate the pros and cons of Eaton's style of play over the last two years. Here he is in September 2012:

"I love his style of play," Gibson said. "I don't know that we've ever had a prototypical leadoff hitter since I've been here, and that's what you would hope that he can do: Be a spark plug at the top. One of his ex-teammates told me yesterday: 'He's the type of guy who'd be the last guy I'd ever want to play against.' He's very disruptive."

And here's Gibson last spring:

Gibson noted Eaton's style of play, which makes him effective, is also part of what makes him a little injury prone.

"I don't know if you've ever watched how he runs down to first base, how even if he's out by 10 feet and he lunges at the bag," Gibson said. "And that's just not good, it's not smart." [...]

"One day he hit the bat, and the bat rack after he struck out," Gibson said. "That's a good way to get out of the lineup."

That's a sobering example, and both the Sox and Eaton would be well-served by following it.

Sure, it'd be fun to see him do something like get under Mike Moustakas' skin, and as soon as possible, but Eaton won't need to strain himself in every instance to prove himself to the Sox. They've told him what they think he's worth by trading him and talking up a De Aza/Dayan Viciedo platoon afterward. Time is now on his side.

The hope is that after an elbow injury caused Eaton to lose a season and a spot in an organization, he'll have a renewed appreciation for the value of good health. That could easily be part of the maturation process. But if Eaton feels like he needs to live up to the badass hype before his talent speaks for him, it could be Arizona all over again.

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