NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- After entering the Winter Meetings in position to make an impact move, the Nationals pulled off such a trade on Wednesday evening to acquire outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox while unloading three of their best prospects.
Eaton, who turned 28 on Tuesday, has been one of the most productive outfielders in the Majors during the past three years even though he has flown a bit under the radar. Since 2014, he has accumulated a 12.7 WAR (an average of about 4.2 per year), according to FanGraphs, which ranks 10th among all Major League outfielders. Combine that with an affordable long-term contract that has Eaton under team control until 2021, which includes two team options, and the Nats were enticed enough to veer from their normal trepidation to trade their top prospects.
In order to acquire Eaton, the Nationals traded Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, three right-handed pitchers that were the club's Nos. 1, 3 and 6 prospects as rated by MLBPipeline.com. Giolito is baseball's No. 3 overall prospect and Lopez comes in at No. 38. General manager Mike Rizzo has normally been reluctant to trade his top Minor Leaguers, so this marks his most aggressive unloading of Minor League talent in his Nats tenure.
This was a statement that the Nationals are trying to capitalize on their championship window now after winning 95 games in 2016 and their third National League East title in the past five seasons. But they have yet to advance past the NL Division Series.
"We feel comfortable with the deal," Rizzo said. "We got ourselves a good, young skillful player that we can control at below market values for five seasons and, again, you got to give to get."
"It was a great honor to play for the South Side of Chicago, they deserve a great team and I'm sure [general manager] Rick [Hahn] will make sure that happens," Eaton wrote in a text to MLB.com. "I'm excited for my new home in D.C., joining a great team with a lot of talent. Can't wait to get started."
The deal came together quickly after the Nats laid the groundwork with the White Sox this week in negotiations for left-hander Chris Sale, who was ultimately traded to Boston.
Still, a year ago, trading Giolito would have seemed unthinkable for the Nationals. He was the top prospect in baseball then and Washington saw him as a future ace at the top of its rotation. But Giolito's stock fell after struggling in his Major League debut. He pitched in six games (four starts) and posted a 6.75 ERA with 11 strikeouts and 12 walks in 21 1/3 innings, while his velocity dipped from the mid-to-upper 90s on his scouting report to the mid-to-lower 90s. It's still a small Major League sample, but opinions on Giolito are beginning to differ on whether he will be a dominant starter.
Lopez also struggled in his debut in the Majors this past season, posting a 4.91 ERA in 11 games with 42 strikeouts and 22 walks in 44 innings. But he was effective as a reliever and made the postseason roster in the bullpen, so perhaps he best profiles as a relief option. And the Nats selected Dunning in the first round of the Draft this past June.
"To acquire a player with this skill set that has the years of control and favorable contract that he has, it takes good players in return. ... We traded from a position of depth," Rizzo said. "We felt we have great depth in our starting pitching. We utilized that to turn a hole in our lineup and we dealt from strength and depth to correct that, and we still like the depth that we have beyond the Major League rotation."
The Nationals did not commit to anything Wednesday night, but the trade should allow Trea Turner to shift to his natural position at shortstop while Eaton takes over in center field.
In 2016, Eaton hit .284/.362/.428 while playing primarily right field, where he was an American League Gold Glove Award finalist, and his 22 Defensive Runs Saved was second most in the Majors at his position. However, the Nats prefer to keep Bryce Harper in right field and believe Eaton can still be a solid defensive center fielder. He was for Chicago in 14, when he posted 12 DRS, but he then posted -14 DRS in '15 and the White Sox moved him to right field. Eaton has a strong arm and should be able to use his athleticism in center field.
"Adam fit our club perfectly," Rizzo said. "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."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Eaton has posted an impressive .286/.362/.430 slash line since the outset of 2015, averaging 14 homers, 16 steals and 94 runs per year over that span. Set to occupy a premium spot in a Washington lineup that was far more productive than Chicago's last season, the outfielder should be a five-category asset with the potential to score 100-plus runs for the first time in his career. By adding Eaton and moving Turner to shortstop, the Nationals will push Danny Espinosa (24 homers in '16) to their bench -- and mixed-league waiver wires.
Meanwhile, Giolito and Lopez should compete for spots in an unsettled White Sox rotation. But while Giolito is ranked among the top prospects in baseball and Lopez also has a solid Minor League track record, both should open 2017 on waivers in mixed formats after struggling with the Nats a year ago. In Chicago's outfield, Eaton's departure may open up a starting role for prospect Charlie Tilson -- a fleet-footed 24-year-old with solid contact skills who could help owners in 15-team leagues.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.