Washington lost the bidding for closer Mark Melancon, who signed with the San Francisco Giants. They whiffed on Chris Sale, who landed on the Boston Red Sox. They came up short in an 11th-hour push to get All-Star reliever Wade Davis from the Kansas City Royals, with Davis going to the defending champion Chicago Cubs, per Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com.
Now, at last, the Nats have a trade in place: They're sending three pitching prospects—Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning—to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton, per Dan Hayes of CSN Chicago.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, it feels like a deal born of desperation—and one that could come back to haunt them sooner than later.
Giolito is the shiniest prize in the package headed to the South Side. The tall, 22-year-old right-hander is the No. 1 pitching prospect in the game, per MLB.com, and projects as a frontline starter who could be a part of Chicago's rotation in 2017 after making his big league debut last season.
That alone would have been a steep price to pay. But Washington gilded the lily with Lopez, the No. 8 pitching prospect in baseball, and Dunning, the Nats' first-round pick from this past summer's amateur draft.
That's three top-shelf arms to add to the White Sox's growing haul of blue chips, which also includes the game's top position prospect, Yoan Moncada, acquired from the Red Sox in the Sale trade.
Like Giolito, the 22-year-old Lopez could be a part of the Sox's 2017 rotation. Lopez hasn't generated as much buzz as Giolito, but he posted more strikeouts per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season (10.4 to 9.1) and fewer walks per nine (2.9 to 3.4) before arriving to The Show and making an immediate impression.
"It's never easy to let go of your prospects," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters. "You feel like a proud daddy when they get to the big leagues."
Taken in isolation, Eaton is a fine pickup. At 28 years old, he's in the midst of his prime. He posted a robust .284/.362/.428 slash line last season with 14 home runs, 14 stolen bases and nine triples.
He was also the best defensive right fielder in either league, posting 22 defensive runs saved and a 23.1 ultimate zone rating, per FanGraphs.
He's locked into a Black Friday-esque contract that will pay him $18.4 million over the next three seasons, with a pair of club options that could extend the deal to a total of $38.4 million over five years. Needless to say, that's below market rate.
Once you add some context, though, this gets worse for Washington.
A large share of Eaton's value is tied to his defense. While he's elite in right field, the Nats already have a guy there by the name of Bryce Harper (more on him in a moment).
Almost surely, the plan is to slide Eaton to center field and move speedy Rookie of the Year runner-up Trea Turner to shortstop.
The bad news? As a center fielder, Eaton owns a career minus-8 DRS and minus-21 UZR. You don't need to know a defensive metric from a rosin bag to understand that isn't good.
Even Eaton's eminently affordable deal is less special on closer inspection. Getting him on the cheap for the next few seasons will be nice, but by the time his options kick in, he'll be on the wrong side of 30. Players like him—guys who rely on their legs and have a tendency to collide with walls—don't always age well.
That likewise puts a wet blanket on the idea of Eaton taking over in right field when Harper hits free agency after the 2018 season. It's technically on the table, but will he still wield an above-average glove at that point?
Again, Eaton will provide value for Washington. The more you turn it around, though, the more this looks, walks and quacks like an overpay.
That seemed to be Harper's initial reaction, if you want to read meaning into a one-word tweet:
Bryce Harper @Bharper3407
Wow...12/7/2016, 10:50:52 PM
To be fair, Harper tossed out congratulatory remarks a scant 14 minutes later:
Bryce Harper @Bharper3407
Welcome to DC A.E! Let's get it done #nationals12/7/2016, 11:04:03 PM
Maybe they were sincere; maybe it was damage control. We'll likely never know. We'll also never know if the Nationals could have gotten flawed-but-intriguing Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, whom they were widely rumored to be chasing, for less.
Here's something we do know: An unnamed Nats player texted Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal in a state of disbelief:
Ken Rosenthal @Ken_Rosenthal
On other hand, one #Nationals player sent me this text: "WTF?!?!" Team still needs closer. Likely out on big two. Melancon, Davis off board.12/7/2016, 10:54:53 PM
Rosenthal's analysis is spot-on. The Nationals need a replacement for Melancon. Their options are dwindling. And they just spent an extra-large portion of their trade capital on a great defensive right fielder so they can stick him in center field, where he's not so great.
Maybe Giolito, Lopez and Dunning will all flame out. They wouldn't be the first touted prospects to do so. Maybe Eaton's high-energy style will be the missing ingredient that gets the Nationals over the hump after a string of disappointing postseason exits.
At the moment, though, this marriage appears to have come at far too high a cost for Washington.
Sometimes, it's better to be the bridesmaid.
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