White Sox Reunite with Adam Eaton on One-Year Pact

It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say one of the most important days in the recent history of the White Sox was Dec. 7, 2016, when they traded Adam Eaton to Washington in return for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, and Dane Dunning. Giolito is now the staff ace and one of the best pitchers in the American League, having compiled 7.1 WAR over the past two seasons. López has been less successful as a back-of-the-rotation arm who hovered just below league average from 2018 to ’19 before falling below replacement level last year, but he’s still provided 4.1 WAR over the last three seasons. Dunning was just shipped out to acquire another right-handed ace in Lance Lynn from the Rangers. A lot of wins can already be credited to the Eaton deal, and more will be added to the ledger by the time all is said and done.

Perhaps it’s cosmically fair, then, that Eaton will now reap the rewards of the roster he played such a key role in rebuilding. NBC Sports Chicago’s Chuck Garfien reported on Tuesday that Eaton will be rejoining the White Sox on a one-year deal, with a team option in place for 2022. The signing comes four years and one day after the team traded him to Washington.

Chicago first acquired Eaton after the 2013 season, in a three-team, six-player deal with the Diamondbacks and Angels that also established new homes for Mark Trumbo, Hector Santiago and the late Tyler Skaggs. Eaton, a former 19th-round pick out of the University of Miami (Ohio), immediately broke out in Chicago’s outfield, compiling 13.5 WAR over three seasons thanks to a .290/.362/.422 line (119 wRC+) and sometimes elite defense. His best season — a 2016 that included a 117 wRC+, 26 defensive runs saved in the outfield, and 5.9 WAR — earned him down-ballot MVP votes, but it came on a White Sox team that finished 78–84, spinning its tires despite the presence of stars like Jose Quintana and Chris Sale. Chicago hit the reset button, and with Eaton coming off a career year and having four years left on his owner-friendly contract extension, he became quite a valuable trade chip.

Eaton seemed like a good fit for a championship-ready Nationals squad with holes to fill in its outfield, but his honeymoon with Washington was short-lived. His 2017 season lasted just 23 games before he tore his ACL running out a ground ball, and he missed two more months in ’18 with bone bruises on his ankle. He finally turned in a full season for the title-winning 2019 Nationals and compiled 2.3 WAR with a 107 wRC+, only to return as a shell of himself in 2020, hitting just .226/.285/.384 (75 wRC+) with four homers in 41 games. He was half a win below replacement level, and Washington declined his $10.5 million team option after the season.

Eaton was able to recoup most of that with his one-year deal in Chicago, which was in need of a starting right fielder after non-tendering Nomar Mazara. Filling that spot in the order was seen as a chance for the White Sox to aim high — George Springer and Marcell Ozuna are potentially transformative bats at the top of the market, while other options like Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, and Jackie Bradley Jr. rank in the top half of our Top 50 Free Agents list. Craig Edwards’ most recent payroll analysis has the White Sox spending much less than their market size warrants, so the resources to add a big name should be available.

Instead, Chicago opted for a 32-year-old with a modest power ceiling and waning defensive skills coming off the worst season of his career. Eaton had various problems in 2020. He raised his swing rate nearly seven points to the highest mark of his career, resulting in a walk rate of just 6.8%, more than two points below his career average. All of that swinging resulted in a lot of contact — he was in the 91st percentile of baseball in whiff rate — but he still posted his highest strikeout rate since 2015.

When Eaton put the ball in play, he also couldn’t achieve the same luck he has in the past. His ability to leg out bunt and infield singles declined, and a career .335 BABIP plummeted to a .260 mark in 2020. Because Eaton doesn’t hit for much power, his offensive value is sustained by his ability to convert line drives and grounders into singles and to work an above-average rate of walks. When he can’t do that and doesn’t have even average defensive numbers to bolster his case, you’re probably better off calling up someone from Triple-A to take his spot in the lineup.

The White Sox clearly don’t think Eaton has reached that point, likely for a few reasons. He just turned 32 this week, an age that typically means you’re past your prime but not one where you expect production to tank completely. Despite the knee and ankle injuries, Eaton can still run pretty well — he was in the 74th percentile of Statcast’s sprint speed metric this year and up to the 81st percentile the year before, which is pretty close to where he was when he was having his best seasons on defense as well as on the bases. He should avoid challenging Luis Robert to pre-game foot races, but his legs and instincts should still help add value.

His raw tools appear to be holding up in other areas as well. Eaton’s exit velocity in 2020 was down from the previous year, but only by a single mile per hour. He isn’t having trouble catching up to fastballs, as his whiff rate against the hard stuff actually just hit its lowest point since 2014. His line-drive rate has remained steady, as has his distribution of where he’s hitting the ball.

The White Sox, then, are betting that Eaton’s problems are easier to solve than it may appear. If he still runs well, perhaps fixing his defense — where he’s dropped from +27 DRS in 980.1 innings in right in 2016 to -6 DRS in 335 innings in 2020 — could be solved with better positioning, or other subtle tweaks. If his contact skills are still in place, maybe you can salvage his K/BB rates by nudging him back toward his more selective approach of the past. Perhaps there’s a 3-WAR player still here, and it’s just going to take a little elbow grease to bring him back out. The idea of achieving that while reuniting with a former fan favorite might make all that work seem worth it.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

I’m hopeful Eaton can bounce back (I think he’s very fun to watch when healthy), but I’d imagine this signing is disappointing to White Sox fans given the other available options mentioned in the article…

dan harmonmember
2 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Can confirm this was not my ideal choice.

And I know this is Fangraphs but signing Eaton also brings along a question of personality fit. He’s an infamous red-ass, and how that will fit with a group of younger, looser, fun-playing teammates is a legitimate concern.

But then again, they hired Tony LaRussa so maybe the whole point is to make the whole team more buttoned down.

Great work, team!

2 years ago
Reply to  dan harmon

I wonder if that is it, actually. They maybe think the team is too loose in the locker room, and Reinsdorf is getting emotional watching The Last Dance reruns and wants to change the mindset, so he goes and gets LaRussa and Eaton . It is very hard to think of any other reason honestly, those two guys might be the last two guys who would fit in well in Chicago in the entire MLB, so it has to be the point, right?