A lot was made this winter about the White Sox decision to spend $8 million to reunite with Adam Eaton in an attempt to fill their right field void. At the time, I felt it was an uninspiring move that could provide some value based on his decent track record (when he could actually get on the field), while acknowledging the risk of him hitting the decline phase.
I believe we've come to the first of potentially several inflection points for a team that believes they are a viable World Series contender. The fact is, it's time to move on from Adam Eaton and find some way to upgrade the right field position to help offset some of the lost production from now three injured starters: Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, and Nick Madrigal.
Simply put, the White Sox can ill afford to have Eaton continuing to be a black hole in right field. Yes, I know he's come up with a couple of timely hits that have driven in runs to either tie games or give the White Sox the lead, but by and large since the calendar flipped to May the Adam Eaton experience has been an unmitigated disaster. Allowing this to continue in the face of the lost projected performance from the likes of Jimenez, Robert, and Madrigal amounts to nothing more than organizational negligence.
Things started out alright for Eaton in his first month back on the South Side. For the month of April, he slashed .233/.313/.407, good for a 104 wRC+, which put him slightly above league average. When you consider what the White Sox received, or didn't receive in terms of right field production in 2020, many felt this was a positive development. Hell, I even said if Adam Eaton is your worst player you can live with that. When the White Sox had a lineup that included Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, they could afford a downturn in production from Eaton. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
Since the calendar flipped to May, Eaton is slashing a paltry .159/.282/.284, good for a 67 wRC+. Given everything that has gone wrong since May 1, the White Sox can't afford to keep trotting out a player who is producing 33% below league average offensively. Adding fuel to the fire, Eaton's contact profile has taken a significant turn for the worse. During this time, he's striking out at a 30.8% rate, which is simply not going to cut it for a player who has a slugging percentage that starts with the number "3." For the season, Eaton is now striking out at a 26.1% clip, which is 7% higher than his career-high in 2015.
Looking at Eaton's Baseball Savant page, you are faced with a pretty scary image:
There's aren't many positives to draw from the data depicted above. Eaton isn't hitting the ball hard, he's striking out too much, and his defense appears to have cratered (more on that later). Baseball is obviously a results-driven business, but in a number of cases you can see underlying signs for players that are likely to turn things around (this is why this data matters, despite some people wanting to not accept it). Things like exit velocities and expected stats can inform you about a player being unlucky. There's simply nothing here to suggest there's a turnaround on the horizon for Adam Eaton.
There may be some of you looking at the paragraphs above believing it's nothing more than a player having a bad six weeks during the course of a long baseball season. The fact is, this is sadly a continuation of a downward spiral for Adam Eaton since the beginning of the 2020 season. Part of the reason I wasn't as bearish on the Eaton signing as some this winter was because of the goofiness of the pandemic-shortened season.
We saw an array of quality players have statistically poor seasons that were likely attributed to the small sample size and abrupt stoppage in March of last year. I thought it was possible that Eaton could've been another one of those players, however, we're reaching a point now where it's likely that his days as an everyday contributor are simply over.
Since the start of the 2020 season, which encompasses 379 PAs, Eaton has a slash line of .210/.291/.363, good for an 80 wRC+. Again, this is roughly half a season's worth of PAs, but the downturn in production for a player who is now 33 simply can't be ignored. The thought of the White Sox continuing to trust that he will turn it around at this point is one that seems foolish at best and negligent at worst.
Going The Wrong Way
Most of us remember what a strong defender Eaton was in right field when he was shifted to the corner spot heading into the 2016 campaign. That season, he posted 16 OAA and 27 DRS in right field, depending on which defensive metric you fancy. The numbers have taken a nosedive since then. His injury history has obviously played a part in this, but things aren't getting any better folks. Already in 2021, Eaton's figures in those categories sit at -2 OAA and -1 DRS. Looking at some of the Statcast data included above, quality outfield jumps are no longer part of his profile, making him more of a defensive liability at this point.
If Eaton was giving the White Sox Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field, they could hold their nose and deal with the decline in offensive production that we are seeing. But when coupling the two together, you get a player that is not making enough of a positive contribution to this team to warrant his continued playing time.
The 2021 White Sox are a good baseball team in spite of all the negative things that have befallen them already. They have reached a point where they need to make their own luck, and one way to do that is via roster upgrades. I don't see how anyone can justify continuing the Adam Eaton experience on an everyday basis at this point. The decline in offensive production is stark, and there are enough red flags to signal that it isn't simply a six-week slump. Add in no longer being a positive with the glove and you have a player that, despite the occasional late-inning RBI, isn't providing enough value to a team that can't afford any more dead spots in the lineup.
The White Sox have defied the odds to this point and continue to control their own destiny as we march on through the 2021 season. It's time for them to find a way to address the right field position in a manner that will give this team the value it is sorely missing on a game-to-game basis. Adam Eaton was a gamble that had some potential upside. But sometimes when you gamble, as the saying goes, you gotta know when to fold 'em.