NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Washington Nationals have officially joined the party at the winter meetings, but the cover charge was pretty steep. Just how steep?
Wow...— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) December 7, 2016
On the one hand, maybe MLB’s CFO (Chief Fun Officer) meant wow in a good way: “Wow ... I can’t believe we just snagged Adam Eaton from the White Sox and get to plug him into center field next to me, which would be really great because he’s crazy good in the field and saved more runs last season than anyone not named Mookie and led the majors in assists. And at the plate, he’s a gritty, gutty, on-base guy with wheels who will help make our offense go. And oh by the way, this means Trea Turner doesn’t have to play center anymore and can go back to short, which means that Danny Espinosa -- love him like a brother and all, but his leather is way better than his lumber -- can go back to being a utility guy. Now that I think about it, this move is so great that I’m even considering signing a long-term extension to stay in D.C. after my current deal is up in 2018, instead of putting on the pinstripes for the remainder of my career.”
Then again, maybe Harper meant wow in a not-so-good way: “Wow ... I can’t believe we just gave Chicago three stud pitching prospects for a dude who’s never even been an All-Star, especially when you consider that we were in talks with Pittsburgh to acquire another dude who plays the same position and is not only a four-time All-Star but has finished top five in the MVP voting four times and even won the gosh-darned thing once. But really, that’s secondary to the real issue here, which is that we just gave Chicago three stud pitching prospects. And speaking of pitchers, we had a couple on the big club last year who had some serious trouble staying healthy, including my boy [Stephen] Stras[burg], whose bionic elbow appears to have a 'sell by' date and could go kablooey at any time. So from where I’m sitting, it sure seems like it might have been a good idea to, ya know, not give up three stud pitching prospects for Adam Bleepin' Eaton.”
It’s worth noting that 18 minutes after the Eaton trade was announced, and 14 minutes after Harper's first tweet, the Nats' superstar sent out a second tweet welcoming his new teammate to the District.
Welcome to DC A.E! Let's get it done #nationals— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) December 7, 2016
And to be sure, the Nats will gladly welcome Eaton. After all, even though he has never been an All-Star, he’s a really solid baseball player.
In fact, his 6.2 WAR last season ranked 10th in the American League and was higher than that of Corey Seager, Anthony Rizzo or Carlos Correa. It was also higher -- by a good bit -- than the WAR compiled by Daniel Murphy, who tallied a 4.6 on his way to finishing second in the National League MVP race. I know what you’re thinking: WAR is a flawed metric, and you can’t hang your hat on it any more than you can hang your hat on a window. While there is some truth to that, especially when you’re comparing players whose WARs aren’t separated by a whole lot, 6.2 is a pretty large number. In fact, if you look at the 2016 WAR leaders, you’ll find that pretty much everyone inside the top 30 -- a group that ends with Justin Turner (27), Starling Marte (28), Miguel Cabrera (29) and Paul Goldschmidt (30) -- falls under the category of “Really Good Baseball Player.” And that includes Eaton.
“Adam fit our club perfectly,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo said at a presser inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center shortly after the deal went down. “Left-handed bat, balanced our lineup, high-energy guy, edge to him. Plays the game the right way, good hitter, good defensive player both in center field and outstanding in the corner -- a productive player throughout his career. We see the arrow still going up with him, and he's a guy that will have years of control and cost certainty, and it allows us the flexibility to do many more things.”
Of course, when it comes to the business of baseball, that last part cannot -- and should not -- be discounted. Relative to his productivity, Eaton comes at an insanely inexpensive price. The 28-year-old outfielder (his birthday was actually on Tuesday) is slated to earn $4 million in 2017, $6 million the year after that and $8.4 million the year after. His contract also calls for team options in 2020 and 2021 at an average of $10 million per year. Assuming the Nats exercise both options, they’ll have Eaton for five years at a total cost of $38.4 million, or an average annual value of $7.7 million. Compare that to, say, the $27.5 million AAV years that the division rival Mets just shelled out for Yoenis Cespedes ($110 million over four), and the Eaton trade seems like an absolute steal for Rizzo and the Nationals -- until you factor in what they gave up. In light of Harper’s tweet, let’s go ahead and call it the “wow” factor.
If you’re keeping score at home, two of the three pitchers Rizzo forked over are former first-round picks. Towering 22-year-old Lucas Giolito, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound mountain of a young man, was the 16th overall pick in 2012 and ranked as the fourth-best prospect by Baseball America this past summer. Dane Dunning, the 29th overall pick in 2016, posted a sub-1.00 WHIP and a four-plus K/BB ratio in the low minors. The third guy the Nats gave up isn’t too shabby either. That’d be Reynaldo Lopez, a 22-year-old Dominican flamethrower who brings high-90s cheese and fanned more batters in his big league debut (nine Ks in 4.2 innings pitched) than any pitcher in Nationals history not named Stephen Strasburg.
Who knows? Maybe none of these prospects pan out. After all, they are just prospects. Giolito is a Tommy John survivor who didn't look ready for prime time last season, when he flashed iffy control and decreased velocity on his way to a 6.75 ERA in six appearances after getting called up. Dunning hasn’t pitched above low-A ball yet. And Lopez’s WHIP (1.57) was almost as high as Clayton Kershaw's ERA. Maybe one or two of them flame out. Maybe all three of them flame out, and Eaton ends up being the missing link that puts the Nationals over the top and helps lead them to the Promised Land.
If that happens, Bryce Harper won’t be the only one saying, “Wow...”