New outfielder ‘will do anything to win’
Eaton elevated his game in Chicago. He had 52 extra-base hits last season. He was a Gold Glove Award finalist in center field in 2014, then one in right field in 2016. In between, he had a bad defensive season he largely attributes to “flukes.” But, his offensive numbers in Chicago were consistent.
The most pivotal change came April 9, 2016, when his son, Brayden, was born.
“I had big peaks and valleys my first year [in the majors],” Eaton said. “My second year, actually, I had big peaks and valleys. Still had a decent year. But I had a lot of ups and downs. I credit struggling early and being able to learn how to be consistent and trying to bring that game every day, as well as the birth of my son. I give a lot of credit to him. He put life in perspective. Not everything revolves around baseball.
“Baseball is absolutely the No. 2 priority behind my family. But to come home and be mad about the game and have it last a little longer than it should, I come home, I see his smiling face and I have to change a poopy diaper and put him to bed, it kind of puts life in perspective that baseball’s all right, it’s going to be there tomorrow, I’m going to have to go out there and work my butt off to get another hit, but realistically this is what matters.”
Eaton was at dinner when he found out about the trade to Washington via a text from Chris Jacobs, who was the host of “Overhaulin’ ” on Velocity, among other TV gigs. Eaton didn’t expect to be traded, but he guessed the team’s path when ace Chris Sale was sent to the Boston Red Sox for a flock of prospects. His phone rattled with messages from family shortly after Jacobs’ text. The move from Arizona to Chicago had changed his career and life. The next massive shift would occur in Washington.
His acquisition caused a stir. The Nationals needed another outfielder and were often linked to former MVP Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a dismal season in 2016. In other pursuits, the club chased two top-tier players, closer Mark Melancon and Sale, and obtained neither. On the last day of the Winter Meetings at Gaylord Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, they worked out a trade for Eaton. Timing, pedigree and fictitious rankings prompted even former general managers to criticize the trade. Notable among them was former Nationals GM Jim Bowden, who pilloried the deal. Sabermetrics connoisseurs gave it their blessing.
Eaton is thankful for his new spot if unmoved by the chatter around the trade’s components. He delivered the standard virtues:
“Dusty [Baker] and I haven’t really sat down,” Eaton said. “He needs to tell me where he wants me to play. Because again, the ball club comes first. It doesn’t matter where I want to play. It’s whatever we need to do win the ballgame. I told him I can do everything but catch. I don’t want to catch. That’s where I draw the line. Those guys take a beating, and I don’t think my knees can take it [Laughs]. But I told him, wherever you want me to play, you tell me. I want to win at all costs. Wherever in the lineup that may be, let it fly.”
Baker again professed his desire for more speed at the Winter Meetings and gained it in the trade for Eaton, giving the second-year Nationals manager multiple lineup options. He could pair the left-handed Eaton with right-handed Trea Turner at the top of the lineup. Turner may hit second to avoid Baker aligning his team with three consecutive left-handed batters, Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper the other left-handed swingers near the start of the lineup. Or, he could split the pair, keeping one up top and moving another toward the bottom. One issue each carries: they strike out a lot. Eaton has struck out an average of 110 times the past three seasons. Turner struck out 59 times in 307 at-bats as a rookie.
The start of Eaton’s sixth season will occur with his third team. His son will have his first birthday during Eaton’s initial road trip with the Nationals, which will be just a short train ride north to Philadelphia. For at least the next three years while under contract with Washington, his performance will be measured against the results of Giolito, Lopez and Dunning. Eaton doesn’t mind. He’s focused on other things.
Adam Eaton knows he is short. He’s also aware of the load of shiny names the Washington Nationals sent to the Chicago White Sox to acquire him, a 5-foot-8 outfielder with a .771 career OPS. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, first-round pick, Dane Dunning. They are gloss to his matte finish.
“I have to do the small things correctly,” Eaton said. “I have to think the game. I have to play the game hard. I have to go out there and want to win at any cost. I’ve played my whole career as such, and I’ll continue to do that. Hopefully, people see me as a player that wants to win and will do anything to win and does the small things correctly.”
The Nationals’ new outfielder — likely center fielder — was at Washington Convention Center, making the rounds at Nationals Winterfest last weekend. Eaton wore his new jersey with the curly W and a red No. 2 on it. The number is a family one. He wore it in high school. It was worn by his wife, Katie, in high school and college. Even his brother-inlaw pulls it on for the Michigan State hockey team. Eaton wore No. 1 with the Chicago White Sox.
“So, hopefully my career will get better with adding one number,” Eaton said.
Life for Eaton has taken dramatic shifts in the last three years. He was a part of a three-team trade in 2013 that moved Mark Trumbo to Arizona, Hector Santiago to the Los Angeles Angels, and “Spanky” Eaton to Chicago. He was a part-time player for Arizona, at that point, with 335 career at-bats in two major-league seasons. Not bad for a 19th-round draft pick. Of the 30 players selected in the 19th round in 2010, two have played in the major leagues: Eaton and JaCoby Jones. Jones was drafted out of high school and did not sign. He claimed his first 28 major-league at-bats last season for Detroit.
Recently acquired outfielder Adam Eaton said he’s willing to play any position the Nationals want him to, except catcher.