Let's take a trip down memory lane.
The timeframe is December 2013 and the Chicago White Sox are at a crossroads. A team with an aging core, a depleted pitching staff, and manager Robin Ventura treading water, the Sox are in a purgatory-like state. Instead of selling off key pieces and kickstarting a much-needed rebuild, second-year GM Rick Hahn decides to get aggressive. Hahn sends away starting pitcher Hector Santiago in a three-team trade to acquire 25-year-old centerfielder Adam Eaton.
Fast forward to 2016 and things are not looking great on the South Side. The White Sox once again fail to make the playoffs, finishing 78-82, good for fourth place in the AL Central. The clubhouse has become about as toxic as can be. Chris Sale has been traded to Boston, a move that would kick off a fire sale for the team. The new focus was building for the future and Adam Eaton was not part of the plan. A player who was expected to be a face of the team for years to come was sold to the highest bidder: the Washington Nationals.
While Eaton had been a consistent offensive presence during his tenure in Chicago, fans had seen enough of his antics. Eaton had seemingly been grouped in with drama caused by players like Chris Sale, Brett Lawrie, and Adam LaRoche, all of whom had very public disputes with the team. That perception, combined with the prospects Chicago got in return, had many picking the White Sox as the clear winners in the trade.
The Adam Eaton era was officially over.
While White Sox fans know how the players acquired in the Eaton trade panned out, many didn't pay much attention to how the catalyst fared. Many focused on the public spat Eaton had with former teammate Todd Frazier as proof he was a locker room issue. However, that wasn't the whole story.
In four seasons in Washington, Eaton played in 310 games and produced a respectable .279 batting average, 26 home runs, and 112 RBIs. He also found himself playing a crucial role in a World Series championship come 2019. In the seven-game series against Houston, Eaton batted .320 with two home runs and six RBIs. After a long and winding road, Eaton was a champion.
The Return Nobody Asked For
Now we've come full circle. In a highly controversial 2020 offseason on the South Side, the White Sox brought back two familiar faces. The most publicly criticized move was the return of former manager Tony La Russa. The second reunion that initially drew ire involved the man who played crucial to the team acquiring Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn: Adam Eaton.
To be blunt, this was a very unpopular move with the fan base. Most had already had a perception of Eaton from his first stint with the team. Secondly, it appeared to be the typical, low-cost reunion that many have come to expect from the White Sox. This move had Jerry Reinsdorf's fingerprints all over it, which rubbed many people the wrong way.
For these reasons, expectations for the 32-year-old were very low. However, many fans seemed to accept it, considering players like Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, and Eloy Jimenez (pre-injury) would carry an already stacked lineup.
What nobody expected was Eaton taking the lead to start the season.
No Pressure, No Problem
As of the time of publishing, we are 21 games into the 2021 White Sox season. On a team with multiple big personalities and strong leadership, it's easy to forget about a guy like Adam Eaton. Most notably because nobody on the team is asking him to be a leader. They just want him to play his game and produce. And that is exactly what Eaton has done.
Eaton is currently hitting .243 with three home runs and a staggering 18 RBIs, which ranks first on the team and sixth in all of baseball. He is also tied for 13th in the league with 15 runs. Not only is this type of production unexpected, but it's also already on pace to overtake the production from the right field position last season.
It hasn't all been perfect, as Eaton has accounted for three errors and was suspended for a questionable play at second base. However, he is currently doing enough to justify his contract and his playing time. He doesn't need to be a leader, he doesn't need to be flashy, he just needs to be consistent. At this point in his career, where he isn't seen as a face of the franchise, that's all you can ask for.
I don't think Adam Eaton would have it any other way.