In the early evening of Wednesday, Dec. 7, just a few miles south of Nationals Park on the shores of the Potomac River in nearby National Harbor, Md., the annual Baseball Winter Meetings were in full swing.As executives, scouts and media members rubbed elbows in the hotel lobby, Nationals President
In the early evening of Wednesday, Dec. 7, just a few miles south of Nationals Park on the shores of the Potomac River in nearby National Harbor, Md., the annual Baseball Winter Meetings were in full swing.
As executives, scouts and media members rubbed elbows in the hotel lobby, Nationals President of Baseball Operations & General Manager Mike Rizzo was about to pull off a deal that would reverberate throughout the proceedings. It was clear that the Nationals were interested in making a big move -- "We've got a lot of lines in the water," Rizzo said each day of the meetings when he met the media -- but what that meant remained to be seen.
At 5:45 p.m., Rizzo pulled out one of those lines. Outfielder Adam Eaton was joining the Nationals from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for three highly regarded pitching prospects. Rizzo had not only shaken up the Nationals' roster, he had given his team a newfound edge in its quest for a National League pennant.
It's no secret that postseason baseball is a different beast than the regular season. Every pitch takes on greater significance, from a ball hit toward the gap in the third inning to a run-scoring chance with the game in the balance in the seventh. When working the count, putting a ball in play, or making a key defensive read can decide the fate of an entire season, postseason teams benefit when their players play a well-rounded brand of baseball.
Eaton, 28, is the prototype of a player who can positively impact the game in every area on the checklist. Over the past three seasons, his .290 batting average and .362 on-base percentage underscore his batted-ball skills and his eye at the plate. In fact, he is one of just five players in all of MLB to hit .280 with a .360 OBP in each of the past three seasons. The other four are Jose Cabrera, Buster Posey, Christian Yelich and Michael Trout.
Eaton, a 5-foot-8 left-handed hitter, also offers a rare challenge to pitchers looking for a platoon edge. Last season he hit .285 with a .360 OBP against righties and .284 with a .369 mark against lefties, rendering him immune to some of the late-inning bullpen maneuvers that have dominated postseason baseball in recent years. He has also developed power, eclipsing 50 extra-base hits -- including 14 home runs -- in each of the past two seasons.
Rizzo was positively giddy about his latest acquisition during a recent Season Plan Holder event in Washington.
"(Adam) should be a fan favorite," Rizzo said. "He's the type of guy that I love to have on the club. He's an energy guy, hard-nosed guy, hustle kind of player with a lot of talent.
"He hits for a high average, he's got sneaky pop, he steals you a base and plays good defense," Rizzo added. "He's the type of instinctual player who has skills and clubhouse presence."
On the bases, Eaton -- a 19th-round pick in the 2010 Draft -- gets good reads and runs well. Among the quintet in the .280 batting average/.360 on-base club, only Eaton and Trout have notched double-digit stolen base totals in each of the past three seasons. He has also progressively bettered his success rate, improving from 63 percent in 2014 to 69 percent in 2015 to 74 percent in 2016.
Rizzo believes the Springfield, Ohio, native could crack the 20-steal plateau for the first time in 2017.
"You put a guy like Adam Eaton with Davey Lopes and you've got someone who could go from 15 or 20 (up to) 30 bags," Rizzo said.
In the field, Eaton is coming off an outstanding defensive season that saw him change positions without missing a beat. In fact, he has finished in the top three of the Gold Glove voting in both center field (2014) and right field (2016) in the past three years. He has good range, soft hands and a strong throwing arm, collecting an amazing 18 outfield assists in 2016 alone.
MASN broadcaster F.P. Santangelo offered his praise of Eaton's arm strength at the Season Plan Holder event.
"You've gotta see this guy throw," Santangelo gushed. "He's got a cannon, and it's accurate. I think that's one of the more underrated parts of his game. I remember the first time I saw him -- I didn't know he had that."
Eaton caught the attention of fans in Washington by attending the team's Winterfest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center the weekend of Dec. 10-11. Less than three days removed from being a member of the White Sox, having a quiet offseason at home with his wife and 8-month-old son, Eaton was busy signing autographs, taking selfies with his new admirers and answering questions about his new team.
Flashing a big smile and showcasing the genuine, happy-go-lucky nature that endeared him to supporters on the South Side of Chicago, Eaton acquitted himself well throughout the weekend. He also made it clear that winning was the first thing on his mind.
"My job is to go out there and play the game of baseball the best way I can," Eaton told reporters. "Coming into such a great organization and being able to contribute … not too many people get the chance that I have. I'll try not to mess anything up, try to come in and produce as well as I can and try to help this team win. That's my main focus."
He said he'd briefly chatted with a few teammates during the whirlwind 72 hours, coming away impressed with some of the early conversations. One of the first text messages he got after the trade, he said, was from Daniel Murphy, whose quick assimilation into the Nationals' clubhouse in 2016 helped the team get off to a fast start and eventually run away with the NL East Division.
Eaton and Murphy immediately found their minds were in the same place: "Let's get to work, let's get into the playoffs and go far in the playoffs. It starts now."
Murphy, who was already a fan of Eaton's style of play, told reporters he was "ecstatic" when he heard about the deal, adding "I had the good fortune of playing against him this year in Chicago and he's just fun to watch."
Murphy also said Eaton's lineup presence would pay dividends throughout the batting order for Manager Dusty Baker's squad.
"It sparks the whole offense," Murphy said. "You look at Trea (Turner) and how dangerous he was, and Adam's coming off a three-year cycle where he's been one of the most productive players in the Big Leagues. I'm a firm believer that protection comes from the front."
Rizzo said the Nationals' lineup would ultimately be Baker's decision. Eaton's versatility and ability to control the strike zone against any type of pitcher makes him suited for multiple lineup spots.
"We think we've upgraded ourselves offensively -- and let's not forget, we won 95 games and the division last year, Rizzo said."
Turner, who hit .342 with 13 home runs and stole 33 bases in just 73 games in 2016, said that he will be comfortable wherever he bats in the lineup. At Winterfest, he also cut to the chase in his assessment of Eaton, less than two months removed from a tough Division Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Watching (Adam) play, I know he's a fast guy with a strong arm -- I think that's what you need in the postseason," Turner said. "He can bunt here or there, go from first to third, steal a base, whatever it may be. I'm excited to have him help us out."
The architect of the Nationals' roster couldn't agree more.
"We're looking forward to taking not just the next step but the next several steps," Rizzo said, energizing the room of Nationals supporters at the Season Plan Holder event. "We definitely feel like we have an opportunity to win the World Series. That's the goal. I think we have the ingredients right now."
Mike Feigen is the content manager of creative services for the Washington Nationals.