Will Nats give Eaton another shot or decide to part ways?

Our offseason player review series continues today with Adam Eaton, who struggled through a rough season before having it abruptly end with a fractured finger.

PLAYER REVIEW: ADAM EATON

Age on opening day 2021: 32

How acquired: Traded from White Sox for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning, December 2016

MLB service time: 8 years, 30 days

2020 salary: $9.5 million (prorated $3,518,519)

Contract status: Club holds $10.5 million option (or $1.5 million buyout) for 2021

2020 stats: 41 G, 176 PA, 159 AB, 22 R, 36 H, 11 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 17 RBI, 3 SB, 0 CS, 12 BB, 32 SO, .226 AVG, .285 OBP, .384 SLG, .669 OPS, 76 OPS+, -6 DRS, -0.5 fWAR, -0.9 bWAR

Quotable: “For a 60-game season to settle my fate for next year is kind of crappy. I try to be as consistent as I can for this team when I am on the field. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of how the year is going.” - Eaton

Thumbnail image for Eaton-Slides-Fielding-Red-sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: Eaton had every reason to feel good about himself coming out of a 2019 World Series in which he earned MVP consideration. The 2020 season, however, brought the scrappy outfielder down several pegs and proved to be his least productive since he became a big league regular for the White Sox in 2014.

Eaton has always been at his best when he works the count, fouling off tough pitches and then taking whatever is given to him: lining a single to the opposite field on an outside pitch, turning on an inside fastball and ripping it to right. That didn’t happen this year. He saw fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.85), swung at the first pitch more (25.6 percent), saw his walk rate go down (6.8) and his strikeout rate go up (18.2 percent).

Eaton had just as much trouble, if not more, in right field. Having already lost a step since tearing his ACL in 2017, he especially looked uncomfortable going back to try to make plays near the wall. His minus-6 Defensive Runs Saved was second-worst among all major league right fielders, better only than Matt Joyce (minus-7).

Eaton’s season then came to an abrupt halt Sept. 16 when he fractured his left index finger on a bunt attempt against the Rays. Though he stayed in the game a while longer, once it became clear he couldn’t be counted on to make a good throw from the outfield, he was pulled. The next day, he went on the injured list and remained there through the season’s final week and a half.

2021 outlook: Upon acquiring Eaton in the blockbuster trade that sent three pitching prospects to the White Sox, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo touted the five years of affordable club control that came with the deal. Eaton has now completed the first four years of that deal, but the odds of him returning for the fifth year appear to have dwindled.

A $10.5 million option for a 32-year-old outfielder isn’t prohibitive in the grand scheme of things, but the Nats must decide if they believe Eaton can return to his pre-2020 form or if this was a sign of significant career decline. As stated, his defense has steadily declined since he suffered his knee injury, and there’s not much reason to think that’s suddenly going to get better. At the plate, it stands to reason there will be improvement, if for no other reason it’s difficult to imagine he could continue to struggle as much as he did this season.

Ultimately, the Nationals are left to figure out if a 32-year-old Eaton has another quality season in him, or if they can do better for the money. Given their struggles to provide Juan Soto with ample lineup protection, you’d think they might prefer another corner outfielder with more pop than Eaton can provide.

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