Lucas Giolito returned to the Nationals clubhouse in 2016 with new mechanics after a stint in the minor leagues. He was searching for a change, desperate to become the prospect he was and superior talent he was expected to be.
Asked if he worked with Nationals senior advisor for player development Spin Williams, who instructed all the minor-league pitchers, or Paul Menhart, then the organization’s minor-league pitching coordinator, Giolito answered he had not. He was altering his windup on his own.
It was a surprise, and ineffective. Giolito’s fastball declined from 100 mph to 92. It was straight and eminently hittable. Months later, the Nationals pulled a stunning trade: Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning -- all starting pitchers -- were sent to Chicago for corner outfielder Adam Eaton. Giolito was not pitching well at the time. López fluctuated, but some in the organization thought he had the raw stuff to be better than Giolito. Dunning was a supplemental first-round pick, not some late-round throw-in. The Nationals sent a truckload of pitching out to bring Eaton in.
Eaton’s play was easily embraced by scouts and sabermetricians. He played hard in the outfield and on the bases. Eaton’s superior defense and balanced, if light-hitting, work at the plate bolstered his WAR. His contract was also extremely friendly.
“I think the determining factor to do a deal that included Lucas was the player that we got in return,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said then. “It was something that fit for us well. We liked, again, the flexibility of the contract and the control of the player and the player itself.
“The analytical side of it was very, very positive. Our scouts loved him, loved the way he played. I think he brings a good package to the ball club.”
The morning after Giolito’s no-hitter, thrown the year after his breakout season, is making the trade look more and more problematic from the Nationals’ perspective. Giolito’s cumulative body of work -- 7.0 fWAR despite being baseball’s worst pitcher in 2018 -- has clearly outpaced Eaton’s 4.6. Lopez also has accumulated more fWAR (5.1) than Eaton. Dunning debuted last Saturday for the White Sox, giving them three major-league starters out of the trade at the same point the Nationals’ lack of pitching depth is glaring.
However, one thing eternally on Eaton’s ledger is his World Series performance. He struggled in both the 2019 NLDS and NLCS. But against Houston, his .993 OPS in the seven-game series was an enormous bolster in front of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
So, the trade has entered the argument stage of short-term, almost one-off, gain versus long-term loss. How did it reach this point? Two reasons: health and adjustments.
The health component crumpled Eaton. He tore his left anterior cruciate when sprinting across the first base bag April 28, 2017, just a month into his first season in Washington. The recovery took a year, but more problems followed. He played only 95 games the following season. In 2019, he was up to 151 games -- just about max durability in this era for an outfielder -- though later said his leg wasn’t right for half the season. He was able to be fully on the field for the first, and only, time since arriving. It was also the World Series-winning year.
In the initial version of spring training this year, Eaton said his 2019 defense “stunk,” which was supported by his dwindling WAR numbers. He had become a negative in the outfield after years of being better defenders. It undermined a solid year at the plate and turned Eaton into an average all-around player for the regular season.
And, there was no assurance Giolito, though just 21 years old at the time of the trade, would evolve into a dominant pitcher. Dusty Baker said Giolito’s fastball was “relatively straight.” The velocity dip was concerning and noticeable.
“The reports you read about him say he throws about 95, 97,” said Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado after facing Giolito in 2016. “Those are the reports we saw and on video. It wasn't that.”
And, it continued not to be. But, Giolito was heading toward an understanding even then.
“I can pitch at 93 if I’m hitting my spots and mixing up well,” Giolito said that season. “I think I left way too many fastballs up over the middle of the plate. Those are the ones that got hit pretty hard. The velocity I don’t think is a huge deal as long as I am pitching the way I should be pitching.”
He turned out to be right. His fastball averaged 94.3 mph last year when he became an All-Star. It’s 93.8 mph this year. Those are slight upticks from his four major-league starts in 2016. What has risen significantly is his changeup usage. It took a 10 percent leap year-over-year from 2018 to 2019.
The premise of the trade still holds. The Nationals needed a Bryce Harper Insurance Plan. They had to manage their money to stay under the competitive balance tax they are so averse to exceeding. Eaton could be viewed as a steal if he replicated his performance in Chicago on his cheap contract. Giolito’s brisk decline from his electric performance in the 2015 Futures Game to his initial major-league stint was alarming. López and Dunning were question marks, though young ones with a lot of cheap future control.
But, this is why years are needed to assess a trade. Both Giolito and López have outperformed Eaton in the regular season. Giolito alone is just 26 years old and arbitration-eligible for three more years. The White Sox will be handling him in his prime without paying free-agent level money for an ace. He’s on pace to crush the returns provided by Eaton to the Nationals.
Eaton may be in his final year in Washington. The Nationals hold a $10.5 million contract option for next season. If this is it, he will leave after under-performing throughout the regular season in large part because of his injury, but will always have a jewel-ladened ring and his dugout drive with Howie Kendrick, and a beer-soaked parade through the nation’s capital, which leaves Eaton versus Giolito a blip versus the long run.