Last week's trade that sent Adam Eaton from the Chicago White Sox to the Washington Nationals for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning was met with much criticism, with the belief that the Nationals gave up too much:
Source confirms Adam Eaton goes to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Wow. What a haul for the White Sox.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 7, 2016
Jim Bowden just now on MLB radio on #Nats deal for Adam Eaton: "That was the worst trade I've ever seen at any Winter Meetings.. Horrendous"— Rob Carlin (@RobCarlinCSN) December 8, 2016
Giolito is viewed as one of the top pitching prospects in the game, even after a rough initial trial in the majors. Lopez is a power-armed right-hander who struck out 126 in 109 1/3 innings in the upper minors in 2016 and 42 in 44 innings with the Nationals. Dunning was the 29th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida.
In return, the Nationals get five years of team control over Eaton at extremely team-friendly rates. If Eaton's 2020 and 2021 team options are exercised, the Nationals will end up paying $38.4 million for Eaton's ages 28-32 seasons. Compare that to the recent contracts given to free-agent outfielders Dexter Fowler (five years, $82.5 million) and Ian Desmond (five years, $70 million), who are both older than and not as good as Eaton.
Why did so many hate the trade for the Nationals? In part, it's because young players are so valuable due to their low salaries. In this case, however, it was mostly about Giolito's potential to develop into a Cy Young contender and Lopez's potential to develop into a rotation anchor.
Here's what's interesting, however: This trade wasn't so shocking in one aspect, as teams appear more willing than ever to deal their top prospects. Eight of MLB.com's current top 20 prospects have been traded:
1. Yoan Moncada (Red Sox to White Sox)
3. Giolito (Nationals to White Sox)
4. Dansby Swanson (Diamondbacks to Braves)
13. Anderson Espinoza (Red Sox to Padres)
14. Lewis Brinson (Rangers to Brewers)
15. Clint Frazier (Indians to Yankees)
17. Gleyber Torres (Cubs to Yankees)
19. Willy Adames (Tigers to Rays)
MLB.com usually reconfigures its list in late January, so maybe the order will change a bit and a couple of these guys will drop out of the top 20, but you get the idea: Prospects are hot currency these days, and teams are willing to deal that currency. Are front offices doing the right thing? I think so. Teams know their players better than anyone else. You can scout the player and analyze the statistics, but there is much that goes unseen outside the lines. The track record of teams trading away highly rated prospects is actually very good for the team and very poor for the players traded.
I went back and looked through Baseball America's archive of top 100 prospects. You can get the all-time year-by-year rankings here. I picked a few years and separated the top 25 prospects into "kept" and "traded," with traded meaning the player was moved before he established himself in the major leagues. This is just a sample of four years, but it serves as a reasonable proxy in lieu of a more in-depth study.
Notes: In general, you can see the risk involved with prospects. As much as we love them, a top-25 prospect doesn't automatically equate to a future All-Star (although Domonic Brown was an All-Star!). Jesus Montero, traded to the Mariners for Michael Pineda (after Pineda's rookie season) is one of the all-time great prospect flops, projected to hit like Miguel Cabrera when he didn't even hit like Melky Cabrera. Of the five prospects traded away, only Wil Myers has done much so far, though his career WAR is just 5.3 through four seasons. Mike Montgomery is with his fourth organization and might turn into a late bloomer.
Notes: I did not include Francisco Liriano in the traded column, though he was traded from the Giants to the Twins while in Class A. He was just a throw-in in that trade and didn't become a top prospect until he blossomed in the Twins organization. Lastings Milledge had 391 plate appearances over parts of two seasons with the Mets before he was traded to the Nationals for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, but I included him in the trade column. None of the four traded guys did much, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia the best of the bunch. The Rays traded Delmon Young after his rookie season, and that proved to be a fruitful deal for Tampa Bay, as it netted Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for a player who compiled a mere 0.7 WAR post-trade. Certainly, there were some big hits in the keeper column, with Justin Verlander still going strong with the Tigers.
Notes: Josh Hamilton is a special case here, as the Rays lost him to the Reds in the Rule 5 draft after he had missed three full seasons due to drug suspensions. Pena eventually found success in the majors, but only after the Rangers and A's both traded him and the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox all released him. The bottom of this top-25 list is a "who's who" of failed prospects. The Cubs made a great trade in sending Choi to the Marlins for Derrek Lee. Perez, once part of the Ken Griffey Jr. trade with the Reds, was later traded with manager Lou Piniella to the Rays for Randy Winn in the rarely seen manager-player swap.
Notes: Jason Schmidt went from the Braves to the Pirates for Denny Neagle, though he really blossomed with the Giants after he was traded for Ryan Vogelsong. Cruz was slugging .541 as a rookie for the Mariners in 1997 when they traded him, shockingly, to the Blue Jays for relievers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. The same day, Mariners general manager Woody Woodward traded Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb. That's a bad day. You can argue Cruz had already established himself, but I counted him in the traded column. Ruben Rivera was one of the great overhypes in prospect history. He made the Baseball American top 100 list five times, including three times in the top 10. The Yankees traded him to the Padres in the Hideki Irabu deal.
In this little study, we get 21 top-25 prospects who were traded. The success stories -- that is, success for the teams that acquired the prospects -- are Schmidt, Jose Cruz Jr. and maybe Myers. Hamilton and Carlos Pena don't really fit what we're talking about.
There's another way to approach this. I checked the top 50 position players and top 50 pitchers from 2016 via FanGraphs WAR to see how many were traded as prospects. Here they are, with their peak prospect ratings from Baseball America.
Justin Turner (never top-100): Drafted and traded by the Reds, Turner was let go by the Orioles and Mets before he signed with the Dodgers, with whom he went from backup infielder to $64 million third baseman.
Nelson Cruz (never top-100): Cruz was originally signed by the Mets. The Mets, A's and Brewers all traded him away as a minor leaguer, and the Rangers took him off their 40-man roster at one point.
DJ LeMahieu (never top-100): This is one of the rare missteps by Theo Epstein's Cubs regime. In one of Theo's first moves, LeMahieu was traded to the Rockies with Tyler Colvin for Casey Weathers and Ian Stewart.
Odubel Herrera (never top-100): He was not traded, but the Phillies got him from the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft.
Not including Herrera, 10 of the top 50 position players were traded as minor leaguers. Five of the 10 were never top-100 prospects. Only two were top-25 prospects.
Noah Syndergaard (No. 11): Syndergaard was the No. 54 prospect when the Mets got him from the Blue Jays.
Jose Quintana (never top-100): The White Sox signed him as a minor league free agent from the Yankees.
Collin McHugh (never top-100): The Mets traded him to the Rockies, and the Astros acquired him off waivers from the Rockies.
Marco Estrada (never top-100): Estrada was drafted by the Nationals, and the Brewers got him on waivers.
We end up with 14 pitchers on our list, seven of whom were never regarded as top-100 prospects and only two of whom -- Syndergaard and Wainwright -- were top-25 guys.
Odds are, however, that the Nationals will win this trade. I'd bet on GM Mike Rizzo and his staff making the correct evaluation on Giolito and Lopez over the industry's evaluation. The takeaway here is not that teams should always trade their prospects but that they should know which prospects to trade, and history suggests front offices are pretty good at evaluating their own prospects. That's why I have suggested that front offices have to be bold, as Rizzo just was for the Nationals. You're more likely to find a future star in a hidden gem such as Donaldson or Zobrist or Quintana or Hendricks than you are to acquire one via trading for a prized prospect.
Of course, it's possible the White Sox just acquired the next Syndergaard and Wainwright. If that's the case, the Nationals will regret the trade -- unless, of course, Eaton helps deliver a World Series title.