Every time Chris Sale blows into town with his Boston Red Sox, the same discussion topic pops up: Who won the trade?
Each Crosstown series, the same question gets asked in reference to Jose Quintana and the Cubs.
Adam Eaton doesn’t play in the American League or on the other side of town, so the “who won the trade” talking point doesn’t get applied to his deal nearly as often. But the Washington Nationals are on the South Side this week. So cue the sports-talk radio dream scenario.
The answer to the question, of course, isn’t one that demands much debate. The nature of a veteran-for-prospects swap is such that the true determination of who got the better end of the deal is unable to be made until many years after the original transaction. It sure looks like the Red Sox “won” the Sale trade considering the large piece of jewelry adorning the former South Side ace’s finger. But Yoan Moncada has played just 266 games in a White Sox uniform. Michael Kopech has played just four. Luis Basabe just got activated from the injured list — at Double-A Birmingham.
To suggest any trade evaluator save their judgment isn’t just a recommendation. It’s a requirement.
But there’s Eaton, out in right field for the Nationals this week at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Acquiring him hasn’t been the final championship piece Washington’s front office might have hoped when it gave up a seeming king’s ransom in three highly regarded pitching prospects: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Eaton played in just 23 games during the 2017 season, which ended with the Nationals eliminated by the Cubs in the NLDS. He played in 95 games during Washington’s disappointing 2018 season, when they missed the playoffs in Bryce Harper’s final season with the team.
Does it make it a loss for the Nationals? Not yet. This season's finish remains unwritten, and they could pick up the remaining two team options on his contract, keep him around for another couple seasons and try for more postseason glory.
And whatever the Nationals’ fortunes are during their years with Eaton really have no bearing on whether the White Sox get a win out of the deal, either. Their contention window has yet to open, so how much Giolito, Lopez and Dunning do to help fuel championship-caliber teams on the South Side has yet to be determined.
But the White Sox are unquestionably happy with the return a year and a half after the fact. They can look across the field this week at a Nationals rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg, and thanks in part to the Eaton trade, envision having a staff that could strike similar fear into the hearts of opponents.
“We have the makings with some of the guys who are here with us now. We have some kids who are working and coming back with Kopech and when we get back (Carlos) Rodon and you've got (Dylan) Cease down there and we've got Dunning, who's recovering. We have some young arms that are going to be filtering this way,” manager Rick Renteria said ahead of Tuesday’s game. “You tip your cap to those kids (the Nationals) got over there because they're pretty good. So hopefully we have that type of staff developing as we continue to move forward and they'll be as effective as those guys have been.”
That’s obviously a high bar to clear. Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young winner. Corbin got the richest deal of any pitcher last winter after his second All-Star season. Strasburg has had massive expectations ever since he was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and has done a decent job of delivering with three All-Star appearances and a pair of top-10 finishes in Cy Young voting.
But it’s not terribly difficult to at least wish for such a rotation to develop on the South Side. Kopech, Cease and Dunning all remain highly rated pitching prospects. Giolito has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. And while consistency has been hard to nail down for both Rodon and Lopez, they’ve shown flashes of promise in the past.
The White Sox would perhaps be wise to account for at least some of those myriad unknowns with some outside help this winter. But a 2020 rotation of Giolito, Kopech, Cease, Dunning and Lopez — with Rodon expected back sometime in the second half of the campaign — not only sounds promising, it sounds like the best White Sox rotation in years.
Giolito’s dominance through the first two and a half months of this season is the obvious driver of the good feelings. Even with such high hopes, Kopech, Dunning and Rodon are all still in recovery mode after Tommy John surgery, Lopez has one of the highest ERAs among the game’s qualified starting pitchers, and Cease remains a pitcher who hasn’t yet thrown a major league pitch. But Giolito has been incredible in 2019, a legitimate Cy Young candidate to this point.
You want to evaluate how the White Sox are faring in the aftermath of the Eaton trade? Giolito’s the obvious starting point.
“Now there are a lot of dividends being paid through his performances,” Renteria said of Giolito. “We really like our chances every time he's out on the mound. That's possible when you have talent. I think the kids we have coming up and some of the guys we have here are looking to get to that point, and I think they will at some point.”
Debating the winners of various deals might be the dream scenario for the sports-talk industry. But the dream scenario for the White Sox is hitting on the players they got in exchange for Eaton. Giolito’s doing his part this season.
If the return package in that Eaton trade — not to mention the ones in the Sale and Quintana trades — can help form a rotation that helps the White Sox compete for and win championships, consider the trade won.
Not that it’s a competition, of course.