December 8, 2016
Adam Eaton, Underrated No More
Giolito had a rough 2016. There’s really no way to sugarcoat that. His velocity was down for most of the season, eventually confirmed by PITCHf/x data in the majors. He got called up and was absolutely throttled. He couldn’t spot his secondary pitches well. Media reports, including Keith Law at ESPN, suggested that coaches in the Nationals' farm system were altering his mechanics for the worse, and he didn’t always look the part of a top pitching prospect. Although it was a close call, we dropped him behind Victor Robles in our recent Nationals top-10 list, and Jeffrey Paternostro wrote an essay wondering whether he's really a reliever. Whispers circulated about the Nationals themselves souring on Giolito.
Yet at the core, the profile remains the same, and it’s a heck of a profile. He’s down a tick or two in velocity, but it’s still low-to-mid-90s with incredible downward plane. The curve still flashes double-plus, sometimes even better. There’s an average changeup in there when he uses it enough. Wavering command is a pretty big issue right now, but he’s a talented 22-year-old with fewer than 200 innings above A-ball, and a lot of guys at that age and experience have command woes only to figure it out later. I wrote Giolito up a few weeks ago as an OFP 70, still a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, with a likely role of 60 as a mid-rotation arm or high-end closer. That’s a heck of a prospect, still one of the best in the game. The stock is down, sure, but consider the heights from whence it came.
Prospect development doesn’t happen in a vacuum, either. If we accept the premise that some of Giolito’s struggles were due to coaching and organizational factors, he just hit the change-of-scenery lottery. Don Cooper is probably the best pitching coach in baseball for maximizing mechanically-challenged young starters while keeping them in the rotation. That’s not an out-and-out guarantee of success—Cooper couldn’t get much out of Jeff Samardzija, for one, and Carson Fulmer still looks headed to the pen—but Giolito’s suddenly in an organization really well-positioned to mold him into the ace he always could be. It should surprise no one if Cooper rights this ship and has Giolito throwing pills and ripping off 80-grade curves in an American League ballpark near you pretty soon. —Jarrett Seidler
An undersized righty who signed for a paltry $17,000 bonus as an amateur in 2012, Lopez burst onto the prospect scene two years later after gaining strength and physical maturity. His fastball began flirting with triple digits between stops in Auburn and Hagerstown. He has some of the better raw stuff of any starting pitching prospect in the minors, though it isn’t hard to envision him dominating hitters in later innings with his power arsenal. He pitched exclusively as a starter before being shuffled up and down between Washington and the upper-rungs of their system, though his big-league appearances late in 2016 were out of the bullpen. If he can continue developing the consistency of his pitchability and strike-throwing, the ceiling is that of a mid-rotation power starter. That said, his short stature, effort, and high-velocity mix of stuff will bring about rumblings of a full-time conversion to the ‘pen if Lopez falters as a starter down the line.
Lopez’s game is all about overwhelming hitters with big stuff, though it isn’t without effort to his delivery’s finish. His arm speed is about as good as it gets, but there's recoil and noise through his high three-quarters slot. This caused his control and command to waver earlier in his career--and even in the early goings of last season--though he progressively stayed around the zone more as 2016 wore on. Lopez holds a late-bursting fastball sitting at 94-96 (scraping 97-98 at best) late into starts, and can reach back for even more velo on his bests bolts when he pitches out of the ‘pen. His power curveball is in the 80-84 range, showing hard vertical bite. He'll lose control of the curve, specifically, when he pulls off his release point, though a large part of his reduced walk totals stem from an increased ability to land his secondary pitches for strikes. Lopez's third pitch is a split-like change in the upper 80s, showing the power arm-side action of an above-average pitch when he sells the pitch well off his fastball. Lopez will need a third pitch less if he’s working as a full-time reliever in years to come, but all three of his pitches show the raw ingredients to miss bats. —Adam McInturff
The Nationals had two first-round picks last year for the first time since selecting Anthony Rendon and Alex Meyer in 2011, and used the second on Dunning. Florida’s rotation was so stacked last spring between A.J. Puk, Logan Shore, and 2017 top prospect Alex Faedo that Dunning didn’t make many starts for the Gators as a junior. He showed that his turbo sinker and hard curveball can play as dominant pitches in short stints, though evaluators long saw him as capable of transitioning back to pitching every fifth day as a pro. Dunning breezed through eight starts between the GCL and Penn League in his pro debut, walking just five percent of hitters while holding opponents to a .208 average, his heavy fastball generating tons of ground-ball outs.
A wiry 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds with trim features and a tapered lower-half, Dunning’s sinker and curveball both are above-average to plus pitches at their best. His hard, arm side-boring fastball sits 90-94 as a starter, and reached as high as 96-97 working from the ‘pen. His curveball shows shows the makings of a swing-and-miss pitch, working 78-82 with flashes of late, crisp downward action. Working as a starter this summer, he relied more on a changeup; while I’ve seen it play more like his third pitch in looks at Dunning, he’ll flash darting, bottoming action away from opposite-handed hitters. With size on his frame and fairly clean extension out front, Dunning can fill up the zone when his timing is right, and has a best-case ceiling of a reliable back-end sinkerballer with a full three-pitch mix. If his arsenal lacks the depth to turn big-league lineups over, Dunning could move very quickly in a two-pitch relief role. After contributing to a talented Gators team for three years, Dunning is a polished pitching prospect who could debut as early as 2018 if all goes right. —Adam McInturff
The boost in fantasy value has more to do with opportunity than the change in venue. Giolito was blocked in Washington, waiting for an injury behind one of the deeper rotations in baseball. Moving to Chicago is a game-changer. Giolito has a legitimate shot to make the Opening Day rotation. The concerns about his long-term outlook are real, but in the short-term opportunity trumps Giolito’s current position on the developmental curve as well as the move to a hitters’ park in a tougher division and league. Giolito’s draft stock is still down somewhat from 2016, but at least he’s no longer a post-hype afterthought in re-draft leagues. —Mike Gianella
Lopez’s stock rises for the same reason Giolito’s does: he moves from a situation in which there was no room at the inn to one where he could crack the rotation on Opening Day or soon thereafter. For re-draft leagues only, Lopez could have more value than Giolito, given the latter’s problems adjusting to the majors. Even if Lopez does start the season at Triple-A, Miguel Gonzalez and the last vestiges of James Shields shouldn’t be considered serious obstacles. Lopez is a sneaky sleeper in deeper mixed leagues, and in AL-only he's worth saving a few dollars for in your endgame. —Mike Gianella
The competition to replace Eaton in Chicago is wide open. Liriano may not have the inside track, but he certainly has the opportunity on a suddenly rebuilding White Sox franchise. Assuming his recovery is complete, Liriano has more immediate upside than any of the White Sox's current internal options. Liriano is already worth a speculative bid in AL-only and is intriguing as a deep mixed flier in the reserve rounds. —Mike Gianella
Acquired OF-L Adam Eaton from Chicago White Sox in exchange for RHP Lucas Giolito, RHP Reynaldo Lopez, and RHP Dane Dunning. [12/7]
This trade is a great one for Baseball Prospectus. Really, we’re excited here. This is a branding opportunity. It was Gary Huckabay who coined "There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect" (TINSTAAPP), and while he technically did so on rec.sport.baseball, he was already a BP luminary by then. TINSTAAPP is a BP thing, and this trade should have Nationals fans scrambling for merchandise. I’m talking t-shirts, red hats with big white letters, pencils, posters, lunch boxes, gaudy gold necklaces.
If you don’t buy into TINSTAAPP, of course, the Nationals paid a steep price to acquire Eaton. If Giolito and Lopez leave their injury histories behind, and if Dunning can outrun the questions about his future role that stem from his relief work in college, there’s a ton of future value there. That’s the potentially bad news. (But guys, TINSTAAPP is real, and if only one of those guys pans out, that’s really pretty good.)
The good news is that Eaton could be worth it, almost no matter what the three young pitchers make of themselves. He’s been a really good hitter and a fine defender for three years. He’s a five-win player at a very low financial cost, controllable through 2021. What’s funny is, he seemed to have reached the ceiling everyone projected for him as far back as 2014, when he hit .300, got on base at a steady clip, played solid defense, and had nooo power. Then he burst right through that ceiling. He altered his approach and his swing. He’s still a ground-ball hitter, but no longer an extreme one. He’s willing to swing and miss, although he still doesn’t do so all that much. He’s moved closer to the plate and is better able to drive the ball (especially pitches up and pitches away) to center field.
He’s not an efficient base stealer, and he probably won’t be a center fielder come 2018, when Jayson Werth will depart as a free agent. He’s still a small guy, so there's perhaps a marginally larger concern that injuries might take a toll on him as he ages, or that his power will simply fade sooner than most players’ would. Eaton has such a balanced skill set, though, that more than one thing has to go wrong for him to fall into second-division status.
Consider this potential Nationals lineup:
That’s a scary bunch. The top five, in particular, could be the best in the National League. If the Nationals weren’t already the NL East favorites for 2017 (they were), they certainly are now. Eaton is as underrated as he is gritty, which is to say, he’s awfully underrated. If the haul of pitching talent Mike Rizzo gave up reaches its full potential, he’ll look awfully aggressive in hindsight. The short- and medium-term gains, though, are almost certainly worth it. —Matthew Trueblood
The good: Eaton moves from a team in the middle of a rebuild to a team primed to win now. This means more opportunities for runs and RBIs, and a boost in value in those categories. The bad: Eaton moves from a park that's favorable for left-handed home run power to a venue that's sub par. Eaton won’t be hurt as much as a 20-30 home run bat would be, but dropping 4-6 homers would offset many of the gains he should pick up in runs and RBIs. The result is more of the same for Eaton: a low-20s earner in mono formats and a high-teens one in deeper mixed leagues. Eaton remains a necessary component in any fantasy format, but he’s not a top-tier player. —Mike Gianella
Jarrett Seidler is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @jaseidler