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White Sox transaction review: The Adam Eaton trade

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White Sox stocked up on pitching depth with one move

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The White Sox accomplished two things by publicly dangling the Washington Nationals’ interest in Chris Sale in front of the rest of baseball during the winter meetings:

  1. They got an offer they liked better.
  2. They helped prepare fans for the return in the Adam Eaton trade.

The time spent boning up on Washington’s farm system paid off when the Sox acquired a trio of pitchersLucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning — for their standout right fielder a day later.

The move was immediately panned as a rare misstep for Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, although the criticism wasn’t exactly fair. The larger media didn’t seem to grasp Eaton’s improvement in right field, and the incredible value such improvement meant for the remaining five years and $38.4 million on his contract. It didn’t help that Bryce Harper’s initial reaction was left to interpretation ...

... and that interpretation was “dissatisfied.”

Eaton’s chief value to the Nats was outfield depth after Harper hits free agency after the 2018 season. He might have been average-at-best in center, but he’d only have to hold that ground for one or two years.

Those on the White Sox’ side were pleased with the return, but with awareness that Eaton would be difficult to replace. After all, he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder with a lefty bat that could get on base against left-handed pitching at the top of the order. Some were skeptical that the White Sox were actually rebuilding, because the first two players traded also happened to be the most vocal about Adam LaRoche’s retirement (and Zach Duke made three, going back to the previous deadline). Those conspiracy theories wouldn’t disappear until Jose Quintana left.

One year later, how does the trade shape up?

The White Sox traded ...

*Adam Eaton, who batted in one of the first two spots and immediately showcased his worth as a table-setter. He hit .297/.393/.462, reaching base 42 times and scoring 24 runs in his first 23 games. On April 28, the Nationals had both the league’s best record and the league’s most prolific offense. Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy became the first trio of teammates to ever record 25 RBIs in April.

Unfortunately, that was the last game Eaton played. In the ninth inning of a game against the Mets, Eaton stretched for first base beating out an infield single and collapsed into a heap behind the bag.

Eaton blew out his ACL, causing him to miss the rest of the rest of the Nationals’ run. His team still won the NL East with a 97-65 record, and Eaton replacement Michael Taylor was the Nats’ best postseason performer, but given their inability to win a postseason series, Washington probably could have benefited from all hands on deck.

The White Sox received ...

*Lucas Giolito, who had been a top-10 prospect for a couple of seasons due to a combination of a mid-to-high-90s fastball and the best curveball in the minors. He put on a show during a two-inning Futures Game appearance in 2015, during which he hit 99 on the gun.

But his stock took a step back over the course of the 2016. His strike-zone numbers each went a little in the wrong direction at Double-A and Triple-A, although he still had a sub-3.00 ERA between the two levels. His problems became more evident during an unsuccessful cup of coffee. He went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in six games for the Nationals. Beyond the results, he struck out just 11 batters to 12 walks over 21 1/3 innings.

His stuff had taken a step back -- his fastball was especially hittable -- and so when the Nationals traded him to the White Sox, it seemed like they were trying to sell before his value cratered.

Keith Law was the most vocal of the minor-league writers in saying the Nationals had messed with a functional delivery. A restoration was in order, and everybody had to remain patient as negative early headlines and wildly inconsistent results at Charlotte piled up.

Giolito lagged behind other Charlotte starters early, but he eventually ironed out his issues by late July. Over his last five outings in Triple-A, he alternated scoreless outings with quality starts, finding a spot in the rotation in mid-August after Lopez went on the shelf.

Giolito made his White Sox debut on Aug. 22, giving up four runs on six hits (three homers) over six innings in a loss to Minnesota. The numbers didn’t stand out, but Giolito was somewhat impressive for throwing six innings despite a complete inability to locate a breaking ball. That gave him some room for improvement, and when he had a fuller arsenal working his next time out, he threw seven shutout innings against Detroit.

That was more like it over the rest of the season. He threw five quality starts in his last six tries, and the only exception was ruined by an awful strike zone, which Giolito turned into his first MLB ejection on the way out.

Giolito went 3-3 with a 2.38 ERA, throwing 45 13 innings across seven outings. He wasn’t exactly as advertised, because he had a hard time locating his curveball for swings. Instead, his improved changeup and brand new (cut-)slider did much of the heavy lifting. He also threw his fastball liberally, and without consequences. The pitch-’til-I-get-hit approach led to uninspiring peripherals. While he only struck out 34 batters, he only walked 12, which is the same number he issued in fewer than half the innings in his trial run with Washington.

*Reynaldo Lopez, whose stock eclipsed Giolito’s during the end in the estimation of some outlets by the end of his Washington run. He threw harder than Giolito, and he experienced more success while bouncing between the Nationals’ bullpen and rotation. He even appeared in a postseason game, throwing two innings against the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLDS.

That carried over into 2017. Lopez was the steadiest of the big three in Charlotte. routinely throwing five, six and seven innings after opening the season with a couple of wobbly starts. He could have been called up as early as late May, but instead the White Sox waited until the first half of August, which was well after the Jose Quintana trade made such a promotion natural. Rick Hahn said he wanted to wait until the schedule eased up, and that starts against the Royals and Rangers had lower stakes than those against the Dodgers and Cubs.

Lopez survived the wait, and he also survived his first go-around with the White Sox, which included a strained back muscle that short-circuited his power in his second start against Texas. That injury-hampered outing was the only one of his eight starts that didn’t last at least six innings.

The results themselves were as mixed as his traditional stats (3-3, 4.72 ERA) would suggest. At one point he struck out a total of four batters over a four-start stretch, but the lack of swings-and-misses could be explained away on a start-to-start basis (coming back from injury, big early leads, etc.). Like Giolito, he tended to work fastball-changeup until opponents told him to throw something else.

Like Giolito, Lopez had a hard time finding his hammer (maybe it’s the lower stitches on the major-league ball?). Unlike Giolito, Lopez didn’t have to develop an alternate fourth pitch in the minors, so he couldn’t offer hitters as many looks. Lopez basically flipped his changeup and curveball usage year over year, and with so-so success. In-start stamina is the biggest question he faces from here, and ideally he’ll have more of a breaking ball for the third time through the order when his fastball dips from 97 to 93.

*Dane Dunning, a first-round pick of the Nationals in 2016 (29th overall) who returned to starting after finishing his collegiate career closing for Florida. The Nationals stretched him out during the final month of the short-season New York-Penn League, and now the White Sox could see how it’d play in the higher levels of A-ball.

The South Atlantic League posed no challenge. Dunning only needed four starts with Kannapolis to earn a promotion, as he allowed just 15 baserunners and a 0.35 ERA over 26 innings.

Dunning spent the rest of the season in Winston-Salem, where he looked mortal but effective nevertheless. He struck out 135 batters to just 36 walks over 118 innings with the Dash, good for a 3.51 ERA. He encountered the occasional rough patch, and 15 homers is kind of high for high-A. Part of that issue may have been attributable to the cozy dimensions of BB&T Ballpark. Get a load of his splits:

  • Home: .290/.345/.475, 11 homers over 283 PA
  • Away: .182/.253/.243, four homers over 322 PA

Looking at the bigger picture, Dunning’s year was an unqualified success, especially as the third player in a trade. He threw 144 innings, easily clearing his previous personal high of 114 the year before, and he finished the year with two very strong starts. I caught his penultimate outing in Zebulon, N.C., where he struck out 10 while allowing just two hits over six innings.

It took me a couple innings to locate the stadium radar gun, but he was working at 95 in the third inning, and was at 93 in his sixth and final frame. The slider was his go-to secondary pitch the first time through, pitching forward and backward. The effectiveness with that approach allowed him to save his changeup primarily for the sixth inning. It yielded a handful of strikes, including two swinging strike threes.

Dunning has positioned himself well for 2018. He should start in Birmingham, and home splits shouldn’t be a problem there. He’ll have some traffic in front of him (Michael Kopech, Jordan Guerrero, Spencer Adams) and to the side (Alec Hansen), and it’s the survival of the fittest from here.

The White Sox fared ...

... very well, because this deal goes a long way to filling out the necessary depth a rebuild requires on the pitching side. Giolito and Lopez will take two spots in the 2018 rotation, and Dunning could very well show up by the end of the season. It’s a fair question whether all of them will stick in a rotation, and Lopez is iffier than Giolito at the MLB level, but my expectations for any rookie starter is “try not to get your ass kicked,” and both cleared that bar in 2017.

Eaton’s knee injury increased the trade’s net-positive feel, and Avisail Garcia’s out-of-nowhere improvement on both sides of the ball made Eaton’s absence less apparent in Chicago.

That said, you can’t transfer the ACL blowout when speculating about Eaton’s Chicago future. His all-out style of play may have made such an injury a little more likely, but he managed to play 310 games over his last two seasons in Chicago, so that’s what you have to use setting expectations in that regard. Setting aside the durability question, Eaton’s value was still apparent in other ways while watching the White Sox in 2017 — like when realizing that Garcia will reach free agency two years earlier, or when watching Yolmer Sanchez lead off, or when watching Adam Engel flail helplessly as the only playable center fielder over the second half. If Eaton’s impact on the clubhouse was any concern, I assume a stronger manager would have smoothed out those issues.

This is all to say that the Sox still have work ahead of them replacing the Eaton-specific hole on the roster. There will be more fourth-outfielder auditions in store for in-house and external candidates, with the front office keeping fingers crossed for a pleasant surprise until Luis Robert and the other A-ball outfielders arrive.

Now, If Leury Garcia can come back from his hand injury and pick up where he left off, and if Avisail Garcia can even provide a Xerox-quality copy of his 2017, Eaton’s outfield skills will be more adequately covered. Pair that with two of Giolito, Lopez and Dunning providing sustainable major-league value, and this is the trade that leaves nobody wanting.