Who will the White Sox add to play right field in 2021?
George Springer? Joc Pederson? Eddie Rosario? Jackie Bradley Jr.?
All of them have been speculated about as possible solutions to replace Nomar Mazara, who was non-tendered by the team last week. But what about the player who brought Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning and Reynaldo López to the South Side in the blockbuster trade with the Washington Nationals at the Winter Meetings four years ago, as the White Sox embarked on their rebuild?
Yes, I’m talking about Adam Eaton, whose name hasn’t been publicly attached to the White Sox but is a logical and realistic fit in many ways. And after winning a World Series with the Nationals in 2019, he’s now a free agent, available to return to the White Sox just as they’re ready to win.
In terms of what the White Sox are looking for, Eaton fills many needs: He's a left-handed bat who works counts, gets on base, does the little things, plays great defense, has championship experience and, at 32 years old — his birthday was Sunday — is only nine months older than Springer. He’ll also come much cheaper than Springer, giving the White Sox more money to spend elsewhere, like on starting pitching.
Truth be told, I’d love for the White Sox to sign Springer, who was a three-time All Star and World Series MVP with the Houston Astros. But only one team is going to be able to get him, and if he doesn’t choose the White Sox, Eaton might be the next best fit.
But this is just me talking. It’s been four years since Eaton played with the White Sox. Why not speak with one of his former Nationals teammates about Eaton potentially coming back to the White Sox?
“When I was playing against him, he’s that guy that rubs you wrong a little bit,” veteran infielder Howie Kendrick told NBC Sports Chicago. “But once you get on a team with him, he’s probably one of the best teammates, if not the best teammate that I’ve ever had.”
That’s quite a statement coming from Kendrick, a 15-year veteran who’s one of the most respected players in the game and has been teammates with esteemed major leaguers like Torii Hunter, Mike Trout, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
Does Eaton play with an edge? Yes. Has he clashed with a teammate in the past? Yes. He and Todd Frazier didn’t exactly get along when they were together with the White Sox. That happens.
As for Eaton’s time in Washington, Kendrick raved about what the 5-foot-7 sparkplug brought to the team both in the clubhouse and on the field.
“On that (World Series) team, he was one of the biggest pieces for us because of the way he went about the game and his ability to play all facets of the game, whether it’s moving runners, bunting, speed and obviously his defense,” Kendrick explained. “You go back and watch those tapes and it definitely shows.
“As far as clubhouses go, you need guys like Adam to be around, especially if there’s young players. He’s not afraid to talk to guys. He’s not afraid to be who he is. I think that he rubs off on other people, the way he plays the game. He lent information to the young guys (Juan Soto and Víctor Robles) about approaching situations in the outfield, whether it was throwing to bases or certain situations during the game, those guys would always talk.”
What Eaton did with the Nationals in their World Series season matched what he did offensively during his time with the White Sox, slashing .279/.365/.428 with 15 homers, 15 steals and 65 walks in 151 games. However, in the pandemic season of 2020, Eaton’s bat never got going. He hit just .226/.285/.384 in 41 games before breaking his left index finger in September, ending his season.
“It’s fitting, for how my year has gone, to end on that note,” Eaton told reporters after his injury. “On a personal level, with the contract next year, to do what I did this year and then to end up on the IL at the end of the year, it’s just as fitting can be.”
Kendrick said the 60-game season probably didn’t help either.
“Sometimes 60 games isn’t enough for us to get in that groove. It was tough for a lot of guys, not just Adam,” said Kendrick, a career .294 hitter who batted .275, mainly used as a DH, in 2020. “I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody, but we’re not built for a short time span, so I don’t think that small sample size would be a great enough to judge him on, especially given the circumstances. That was tough for all of us.”
The Nationals ended up declining Eaton’s $10.5 million option for 2021, making him a free agent. Was Kendrick surprised?
“Yeah, I was a little bit,” Kendrick said, “but at the same time I understand the game, as well, with an influx of young players that (the Nationals) are trying to move forward, as well. Not that Adam didn’t mean the world to the Nationals because of what we’ve done there.
“I feel like Adam brought a lot to the table there, and any team is going to be lucky to have him. And I sure as heck enjoyed playing with him. I told him after the season, 'Don’t worry, there’s going to be a bunch of people giving you a call,' because of the way he goes about the game. And given the game today with all the analytics, I’m very fond of having old-school guys that can teach the game and understand the game and know how to play all facets of the game.”
And what a twist it would be for the White Sox to bring back Eaton as a bookend to their rebuild. One of the first pieces traded at the start of the teardown, he would return to Chicago as a final piece as they try to win a World Series.
Kendrick, who is a free agent himself, seems to approve of an Eaton reunion on the South Side.
“If they don’t land a guy like Springer, Adam is a guy I would consider,” he said. “He was big for us, especially in 2019. We got a ring. Now it’s his turn to go out there in free agency and try to find the team that’s going to want him because I think he’ll be valuable to someone.”
Springer has the talent to be Plan A for the White Sox, but as Kendrick explained, “Sometimes in a clubhouse it’s not necessarily the superstar players that always take you over the top.”
Will Eaton end up being the answer in right field for the White Sox?
It's an intriguing idea.