- - Thursday, December 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Shortly after the news broke Wednesday afternoon that the Washington Nationals had traded two of their top pitching prospects to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper tweeted, “Wow.”

Not exactly, “Where’s my ring,” is it?

Now, Harper could have meant all sorts of things by that, none of them related to his team’s trade for Eaton. He could have been walking by a mirror, got a look at himself, and said, “Wow.”

But based on his Twitter feed, the responses that followed interpreted it as a reaction — a negative one — to his team trading such valued young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, along with another young pitcher, Dane Dunning, for … well … Adam Eaton.



Harper must have realized that as well, because about 15 minutes later he tweeted, “Welcome to DC A.E! Let’s get it done #nationals.”

You can certainly understand Harper’s initial reaction. It was the same one many in the business of baseball had, as well as fans.

It wasn’t the typical reaction to a trade by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. The usual response to a Rizzo deal is something like this: “Nats could be big winner in 3-team trade” read the headline when Rizzo got Trea Turner and Joe Ross two years ago from the San Diego Padres while just giving up Steven Souza to Tampa in the three-team transaction.

“They are the clear winner. Not even close,” one baseball executive told Fox Sports.

As we all know from watching Trea “Ty Cobb” Turner this past season, that has proven to be the case.

Or this reaction: “Nationals steal Doug Fister from Tigers,” read one headline the year before, when Rizzo traded infielder Steve Lombardozzi and young pitching prospects Robbie Ray and Ian Krol to Detroit in exchange for starting pitcher Doug Fister.

That was accurate as well, if not as dramatically so. Fister won 16 for Washington in 2014, helping the Nationals win the National League East title, though he was plagued with injuries the year after, going 5-7 and was not resigned. None of the players the Nationals gave up have since made them regret losing the trio.

This time the reaction is different.

“Adam Eaton for Lucas Giolito ‘Wow’ Trade Could Come Back to Haunt Nationals,” read one Bleacher Report headline.

“The Nationals mortgaged their future and didn’t even fill their biggest offseason need,” read the Fox Sports headline.

That need would be closer, and the salt in the wounds of Nationals fans came a few hours later when Aroldis Chapman — a reported Nationals target — signed an $86 million deal with the New York Yankees.

You can understand why Nationals fans feel wounded. The talk all week during the winter meetings was about surrendering the likes of a Giolito and Lopez in return for Cy Young award-winning starter Chris Sale, a deal that seemed like far more bang for your back. Then to turn around and trade those same chips dangled in the Sale talks for Eaton? Of course it was a letdown.

What may have happened, though, is that Eaton, not Sale, may have been Washington’s primary target in the trade discussions with Chicago. Going into the winter meetings, the Nationals front office had doubts they could put together a package to get Sale.

When the Nationals acquired Fister, they had been in talks with Detroit about trading for Max Scherzer, now a Nationals starter but then coming off a 21-win Cy Young season with the Tigers. Detroit knew that Scherzer, being a Scott Boras client, would become a free agent a year later and were entertaining trade talks for him.

But Washington, in the game of horse trading, had actually had Fister in mind all along, and believed this process would reduce the package they would have to offer Detroit to get Fister.

So Eaton, not Sale, may have been Washington’s target all along — which means this may have not been a desperate change of direction, but their calculated strategy.

“You’ve got to give to get,” general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters Wednesday. “We certainly got what we wanted in Adam Eaton. The White Sox should and do feel good about what they acquired in this.”

I doubt if that will make Nationals fans feel any better. If this was a strategic misdirection, it certainly didn’t appear to reduce the price they paid for Eaton.

The reaction by Nationals fans is a result of being told by the organization for several years now about the potential for Giolito in particular, their No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.

A year ago, when Rizzo announced the 6-foot-6, 250 right hander, who had Tommy John surgery for torn elbow ligaments shortly after being drafted, would be invited to spring training, the general manager told reporters, “We expect big things from Lucas Giolito, not only in 2016 but down the road also.”

They did. Washington had hoped that both Giolito and Lopez would be key contributors coming out of the bullpen late this past season and into the postseason. Lopez was inconsistent, and Giolito — once considered one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball — was worse. He appeared to have lost significant velocity off his fastball and struggled, giving up 16 earned runs in 21 1/3 innings pitched in six major league appearances.

Still, packaging both of them in a trade for an outfielder whose greatest claim to fame in five major league seasons is the American League co-leader in triples last season, with nine, seems like a high price.

Eaton, 28, is a good, consistent player. In 619 at bats last year, he had 176 hits, 29 doubles, 14 home runs, scored 91 runs, drove in 59 runs and stole 14 bases while batting .284. It’s almost a carbon copy of what he did the year before — in 610 at bats, 175 hits, 28 doubles, nine triples, 14 home runs, 98 runs scored, 56 RBI and 18 stolen bases.

He is a solid outfielder who can play center or the corner positions, with a team-friendly contract — five more years of control at a cost of $38.4 million, or less than 10 percent of what it may take to keep the Minister of Fun here in Washington.

Wow.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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