Adam Eaton is not a Centerfielder (Or a closer, for that matter)
This offseason, after their trade proposal for Chris Sale fell through, the Washington Nationals decided to pull the trigger on a different deal with the White Sox: OF Adam Eaton in exchange for SP Lucas Giolito, SP Reynaldo Lopez, and SP Dane Dunning.
That’s a huge amount of talent involved in one deal. Eaton was worth 6.0 fWAR last year, 11th in the AL, and Giolito and Lopez have been ranked the #1 and #9 RHP prospects in all of baseball, respectively. On the surface, it looks like a fair trade. Eaton is cheap but productive (12.8 fWAR over the past 3 years, and his contract is a steal,) so it makes sense that the Nationals would have to give up copious amounts of talent to get such an outfielder.
The problem, however, is that the Nationals are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole — most expect them to put Eaton in center field, and leave “Face of the franchise” Bryce Harper in right. By doing so, the Nationals will be losing out on one of Eaton’s biggest skills: defense.
Eaton had remarkably similar years offensively from 2015 to 2016. His number stayed roughly the same all the way across the board — except for his fWAR, which increased 2.3 fWAR. Eaton received a huge boost to his value because the White Sox started him predominantly in right field instead of center field.
Career-wise, in center field, Eaton averages -8.7 UZR/150, evidence that he’s a defensive liability in center. In 2015, when he made most of his starts in center field, he looked completely lost:
In 2016, the Chisox decided to move Eaton to right field, and let JB Schuck and Austin Jackson man center. Letting the latter two on a baseball field proved to be a huge mistake as they combined for -1.8 fWAR, but moving Eaton to right may have unlocked the defensive beast within Eaton.
Right field suddenly became a no-mans-zone for hits. This Fangraphs article from May predicted that Eaton would slow down with the whole “being a fantastic defender,” but he never did. He finished second in the majors for UZR/150, close on the heels of perennial Gold Glover Kevin “70% of the earth is covered by water, the other 30% is covered by me” Pillar. Eaton displayed a marked improvement with the glove this season as a result of his move from center to right, and that’s largely why his value in terms of fWAR shot up.
Now that Eaton has realized the defensive part of his game, he’s an extremely valuable player. Eaton is only an above average hitter (some wRC+ comps would be Curtis Granderson or Melky Cabrera) without much power, so being able to provide value in the field makes him makes him a slightly better version of Kevin Kiermaier, which would be a valuable commodity for any team — on the condition that he plays RF.
But why should the team with the best right fielder in the NL should trade for the one of the best right fielders in the AL?
Harper has RF locked down for the Nationals already. He’s an unspectacular right fielder (career 2.7 UZR/150), but the main appeal is his bat. Yes, he may have had a down season last year, but that may have been the result of injury. Regardless, he’s still a threat with the bat and one of the best players in the majors today — even while slumping, he was still productive in 2016 (3.5 fWAR).
But the Nationals traded for Eaton nonetheless, and they have no plans of moving Harper, and so they’ll lose Eaton’s defensive value.
The trade itself wasn’t really necessary — the Nats would have been far better off using their prospects to acquire a bona-fide center fielder elsewhere, rather than acquiring an all-star caliber player at a position where they have an MVP caliber player.
The Nats may be playing the long game, however. Washington has a hot commodity in the form of Victor Robles, a center field prospect with a high ceiling and an ETA of 2018, coincidentally the year Harper becomes a free agent. The Nationals are currently burdened with back-loaded contracts from starters such as Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, and as a result, the type of contract Harper would command might be out of the front office’s reach.
If the Nationals put up with Eaton’s sub-par center field defense until Harper leaves and Robles arrives, they’ll have several more years of Eaton (with options) and hopefully an All-Star center fielder if Robles pans out. But all this involves playing Eaton out of position for 2 years, during a win-now mode.
It’s difficult to see what the Nationals saw in this trade. Perhaps they saw a chance to take advantage of Giolito’s high stock before it crashed. Or maybe they believed Eaton could translate his success in RF to CF with enough practice. Whatever the reason, the Nats now have two of the best right fielders in the bigs — a mixed blessing.