In December 2016, the Washington Nationals were coming off a 95-win season led by that season’s NL Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer. After a five-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, management knew that the team was missing something. Ben Revere and his .560 OPS that season simply weren’t cutting it for a starting outfielder, so Washington looked to the trade market to fill the gap.
During that same 2016 campaign, the Chicago White Sox won 78 games but finished fourth in the AL Central. The Cleveland Indians nearly won the World Series that year and the Detroit Tigers still looked fairly competitive. The White Sox entered the offseason ready to shake up the roster and they did just that.
In the span of two days, the team traded their ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox and outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals after he finished 19th in AL MVP voting in 2016. The Sale trade worked great for both sides; Boston won a title in 2018 and the White Sox acquired elite pitching prospect Michael Kopech and one of the new faces of the franchise in Yoan Moncada. When it comes to the Eaton trade, though, the White Sox are the very clear winner.
The Nationals sent a trio of prospects to Chicago for the then-28-year-old Eaton: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning. Giolito was once a top-five prospect in all of baseball after being drafted in the first round out of high school in 2012. Lopez was a top-50 MLB prospect while Dunning is still around the top-100 but has slipped a bit due to his Tommy John surgery last month.
In 2017, Eaton got off to a decent start with his new team but unfortunately tore his ACL in late April, playing just 23 games that season. Washington still won 97 games but, yet again, got bounced in the NLDS, this time in five games by the Chicago Cubs. When Washington acquired Eaton, the team assumed they’d be in a competitive state for several seasons. That hasn’t exactly happened.
Eaton suited up for 95 games last season, posting a terrific .394 on-base percentage despite chipping just five homers and nine stolen bags. However, Washington failed to make the postseason with an 82-80 record. Now, in 2019, the Nationals are six games under .500 and might be looking to sell at the deadline. Eaton hasn’t helped much with a .721 OPS, the lowest he’s registered since his 2013 rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, Giolito was downright horrible in 2018, leading the AL with 118 earned runs allowed and 90 walks issued. He punched out just 125 batters in 173.1 innings and finished with a 6.13 ERA. Even with Lopez having a decent 2018, recording a 3.91 ERA and 151 strikeouts, Washington looked like the winners of the trade before this season. Not anymore.
The 24-year-old Giolito has unlocked something in 2019 and he’s one of the frontrunners for the AL Cy Young. He’s 9-1 with a 2.28 ERA across 75 frames and leads the AL with a 2.47 FIP. More importantly, he’s fixed his command and is striking out batters at a much better rate with an 89:22 K:BB so far. This could be due to his bump in velocity, as his fastball is now regularly touching 95 miles per hour. Lopez has taken a step back and owns an unsightly 6.21 ERA in 2019, but his stuff is electric and he’s shown he can be successful at the MLB level.
Overall, Washington really doesn’t have much to show for this deal besides missed expectations and a thin farm system while Adam Eaton is either hurt or ineffective. Granted, the Nationals have one of the best staffs in baseball with Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. They have plenty of bigger holes to fill on the roster, but having Giolito and Lopez right now certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially for the next several seasons. Instead, the White Sox have built a team of budding young stars and might be ready to compete in the near future.