Adam Eaton Trade Analysis: Nationals make the first move of the post-Bryce Harper era

Like two friends just finishing a long road trip, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and White Sox GM Rick Hahn probably don’t want to talk to each other for a while. After spending the first half of MLB’s Winter Meetings trying–and failing–to complete a deal for ace pitcher Chris Sale, the two teams settled on a trade of Adam Eaton to the Nationals for three right-handed pitching prospects, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning.

This is an un-Rizzo trade.  We’re accustomed to the Nationals hoarding organization depth and then using it to secure valuable pieces from other teams while holding on to their top prospects.  In the past, Rizzo shops and shops until he finds a trade partner not demanding the best assets in the Nats farm system.  Think Alex Meyer for Denard Span or Robbie Ray for Doug Fister.  Each time, the top prospects were left untouched while Rizzo dipped into his secondary pool of talent.  Even this past season, Rizzo refused to touch his top prospects for Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, instead dealing a lesser prospect for a lesser closer.  Secure the present, but always protect the future.

So it’s a little bit shocking to see Lucas Giolito–once considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, Reynaldo Lopez–a consensus 2016 Top 100 prospect, and Dane Dunning, a recent first round pick in the 2016 draft get traded for a non-household name.  Rizzo rarely breaks into his prospect vault.  To see him do it for a guy named Adam Eaton is a little bit shocking.

How to explain?

First, Eaton is more than you think.  He doesn’t have the name recognition–or trophy case–of Andrew McCutchen, also targeted in trade talks this week, but he might provide the better value to Nats.  Eaton is an amazingly consistent player (.287/.361./431 in 2015, .284/.362/.428 in 2016, 14 HRs each season).  He doesn’t grab MVP votes, but he’s the type of player a championship lineup covets.  He gets on base.  Plays defense.  Stays healthy.  He’s a player a savvy GM 10 years ago could have grabbed for cheap from a more traditional GM still wedded to baseball card stats.  He reminds me of Ben Zobrist or Jason Heyward (2014-15 version).  I refer to Zobrist and Heyward because those players were acquired last season by the best GM in baseball, Theo Epstein, who’s on the phone right now giving his ring size for the ceremony at Wrigley Field next April.  If Adam Eaton were on the free agent market right now, GMs would be lining up to sign him to $100 million contracts.  Sportswriters would say things like “Adam Eaton is getting $100 million???!!!” but the GMs wouldn’t care because they know the value he brings to a ballclub.

The truth is the Nationals traded for Adam Eaton because they can’t sign a guy like him as a free agent.  The market is glutted by players like Mark Trumbo and Ian Desmond, who will give you power and production–if you’re willing to pay handsomely for it–but won’t do the day to day things Eaton will.  After finishing second place in the Zobrist and Heyward sweepstakes last offseason, Rizzo finally won.  But he won at a price.

And the price is shocking.  Giolito has been untouchable in trade talks the past three seasons.  Lopez, too, was in the first tier of prospects usually untouchable.  Dunning was a first round pick six months ago.  The trading of first round picks is normally a mistake left to short-sighted teams like the Diamondbacks or the Padres.

Giolito in particular seems like a missed opportunity.  Had Rizzo been willing to trade him a year ago, or even 4 months ago, what could have acquired?  Would Chapman or Miller successfully closed out Game 5 against the Dodgers last October?  Could Troy Tulowitzki have been the 2016 Nats shortstop?  It seems like Rizzo held onto a prized asset a little too long, and then sold him low after an unimpressive rookie season.

Twelve months ago, I expected Giolito to be the Nationals future and now he’s in the past, along with two other highly regarded prospects.  But it would be a mistake to characterize this trade as a mortgage of the future to enhance the present.

Eaton actually is the future, and that’s the only reason the Nationals made this trade.  Eaton is 28 and he’s signed for five more seasons, all at below-market team-friendly prices.  Eaton himself is a long term asset, a fact which makes it easier part with top prospects.

Other than Eaton, the biggest news from the Winter Meetings this week was the story the Nationals are prepared to let Bryce Harper walk away as a free agent after the 2018 season.  After seeing the Nats trade three prospects, one might assume the Nats are gearing up to maximize that two year window.

On the contrary, they just made the first trade to prepare for the post-Bryce Harper era.