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Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Adam Eaton, OF, White Sox

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Adam Eaton
Adam Eaton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

The Chicago White Sox recently gave outfielder Adam Eaton a five-year contract extension worth a reported $23,500,000. The Sox see him as a key asset for the franchise going forward and wanted to lock him up, executive Rick Hahn noting that they believe "that the guaranteed money wouldn't change the player's approach to their preparation for the game." In other words, they like his makeup as much as they like his talent on the field.

Not bad for a guy who was a 19th round pick.

Eaton was a very successful college player at the University of Miami-Ohio, hitting .340/.441/.586 over his three-year career there, also hitting 24 homers and swiping 66 bases over his 158-game NCAA tenure. He was a good athlete but scouts weren't sure what to make of him and many saw him as just an organization player due to his 5-9 stature. He lasted until the 19th round of the 2010 draft, selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Assigned to Missoula in the Pioneer League, he was devastatingly effective and hit .385/.500/.575 in 68 games, stealing 20 bases and posting a 35/44 BB/K in 226 at-bats. This was my take in the 2011 Baseball Prospect Book:

If he was four inches taller he could have been a third round pick: he’s a very good athlete with speed and power, and a polished approach to go with his physical tools. But he is undersized, so a lot of scouts were skeptical about how he would do in pro ball. He was excellent in the Pioneer League, destroying rookie league pitching to the tune of a +42 percent OPS. We need to see him at higher levels; lots of college guys tear up the Pioneer, but his performance was excellent, and he was excellent in college, and even scouts who worry about his size admire his baseball skills. I want to see more, but he did enough to get a Grade C+ from me.

After an impressive spring training in '11 Eaton opened the season with Visalia in the California League, hitting .332/.455/.492 with 24 steals, 42 walks, and 41 strikeouts in 244 at-bats. Promoted to Double-A Mobile at mid-season, he remained effective with a .302/.409/.429 mark, a 30/35 BB/K in 212 at-bats, and 10 more steals. His rating entering 2012:

Adam Eaton has done nothing but mash pro pitching, zipping through the lower minors and holding his own in Double-A. He finished ’11 with an excellent showing in the Arizona Fall League, and will probably begin ’12 in Triple-A. Eaton is short, but he’s got some tools, including above average running speed and surprising power. He controls the strike zone well, and scouts praise his hustle, instincts, and love for the game. About the only statistical negative is a drop in Isolated Power in the Southern League, although he maintained strong walk and strikeout rates. I like Eaton, and I think he’ll be either a really good fourth outfielder or a David DeJesus-type regular. Grade B-.

He kept hitting. Moved up to Triple-A Reno in 2012, Eaton his .381/.456/.539 with 46 doubles, 38 steals, and a 53/68 BB/K in 488 at-bats. Promoted to the majors, he hit a credible .259/.382/.412 in 22 games, 85 at-bats. The book comment entering 2013:

Not a fluke, guys. Eaton may be short, but this former 19th round draft pick has plenty to offer on the tools side, including exciting speed, very good plate discipline, a strong throwing arm, and occasional sparks of power. He won’t be a big home run threat, but he doesn’t need to be: he’ll show gap power often enough that the pitchers will have to respect him. He’s selective and a genuine on-base threat; his .382 OBP in the majors is an entirely realistic result of his abilities and not just a small sample stroke of luck. He’s a very good defender with a strong, accurate arm, and he hustles his ass off. Although Eaton isn’t going to hit .381 in the majors, I don’t see any reason why he can’t hit .280+ with some doubles and a high OBP, 20+ steals, and a significant defensive contribution. If he was 6-0 instead of 5-9, he’d get a lot more press. Grade B, which may seem aggressive, but will look prescient when he challenges for Rookie of the Year. Eaton has already won the coveted 2013 "Josh Willingham This Guy Can F**king Hit" award

Alas, the comment about being prescient proved incorrect, the universe rewarding my hubris with injuries that limited Eaton to 66 games in 2013 and a muted .252/.314/.360 line. However, a trade to the White Sox and better health unlocked Eaton's abilities in 2014, resulting in a .300/.362/.401 mark for Chicago. He stole 15 bases and led the American League with 10 triples.

Through 211 major league games, Eaton is hitting .281/.350/.390, 2.7 fWAR, very much in line with the 2013 projection. The main disagreement is about his defense, as the various detailed defensive measuring systems don't agree with each other. Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs pointed out in December that Fangraph's UZR system thinks Eaton is below average as a fielder, hurting his fWAR, but Baseball Reference's DRS system thinks he is excellent with the glove which boosts his bWAR to 5.2. Sullivan splits the difference and concludes that Eaton is a solid, slightly above average fielder, which seems plausible.

Eaton is now 26 and entering his prime years. My guess is that he will gradually show more power; he hit just one homer last year but it seems possible he could add more over-the-fence pop at some point, perhaps as Brett Gardner has done. Even if that doesn't happen, Eaton's OBP abilities, doubles, triples, speed, high-energy playing style, and at least solid defense will make him a valuable property going forward.

And he's just a lot of fun to watch.