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Nationals pay steep price for well-rounded Adam Eaton

Mike Rizzo surrendered the Nats’ first, third and sixth-rated prospects to land Eaton, a very, very good — but not great — player.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

After failing to complete a deal for Chris Sale or Andrew McCutchen at MLB’s Winter Meetings, the Washington Nationals on Wednesday acquired outfielder Adam Eaton from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.

Eaton, 28 on Tuesday, is a really good player. Like, really good. He’s a 3.5-4.0 oWar player that provides significant defense at the corner outfield spots and passable defense in center, though the metrics prefer him much more at the corners. He’ll be expected to play in center for the Nats — at least in 2017.

For a fast guy — he’s led the league in triples twice — his stolen base totals and rate aren’t the greatest, but perhaps working with Davey Lopez and Dusty Baker will boost that.

But Eaton is a 15-15 guy playing in the prime of his career with a very team-friendly contract: due $4 million in ’17, $6 million in ’18 and $8.4 million in ’19, with team options for ’20 and ’21 at $9.5 and $10.5 million. He should be worth every single penny of that, and then some.

On top of his talent on the field, it’s on the balance sheet where Eaton provides his biggest benefit.

His contract affordability and certainty allows the Nats the freedom to make other deals and address other needs. In the immediate, it lets them go after a closer this off-season. In the future, it frees up money (along with Jayson Werth coming off the books) to address the elephant in the room: the impending free agency of Bryce Harper.

I have always been of the opinion that there’s no way Scott Boras doesn’t take Bryce Harper to free agency, but I pretty much felt the same about Stephen Strasburg.

But this deal should help the Nats determine the budget for the next several seasons before deciding to open the purse strings.

All of this is to say: I really like Eaton for this team. He’s another left-handed, top of the lineup hitter that can move over to a corner when Victor Robles — the guy the Nats wouldn’t trade for Sale or McCutchen — is ready to take over in center.

An outfield of Eaton-Robles-Harper from left-to-right would be pretty darn good.

That supposes, though, that they re-sign Harper. If not, Eaton becomes your 15-homers-per-year right fielder.

Regardless, Eaton’s .360 OBP will fit right in with Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Harper in the top 5.

Where this hurts is the return it took to get him.

Mike Rizzo surrendered the Nats’ first, third and sixth-rated prospects to land Eaton. That’s a steep price.

As I mentioned, Eaton is a really good, well-rounded player. But he isn’t great. His overall WAR is bumped by playing corner outfield, and the Nats aren’t set up to use him that way right now.

He’s never hit more than 14 homers or stolen more than 18 bases in a season, despite leading the league in triples twice. He’s a lifetime .284 hitter and has hit .300 exactly once.

Fangraphs called Eaton the Nats’ newest “star,” but he’s never been voted or named to an All-Star team.

Giolito was, as recently as this time last season, the top right-handed pitching prospect in the game. A trade like this last spring would have been completely inconceivable.

But Giolito has yet to dominate in the minors despite his obvious skill and the Nats apparently soured on the idea they could coax that out of him.

The organization tinkered with his mechanics and approach last season and that was obvious as well.

In his few opportunities at the big league level last summer (opportunities that I believe were neither earned nor warranted), he disappointed.

He got beaten up and showed a fastball in the 91-93 range as opposed to the 94-97 of the previous summer.

So whether it is a skill problem or a development problem, it’s no longer the Nats’ problem.

As for the others, I’ve been of the opinion that Lopez will turn out to be a short reliever. He’s got the stamina to start, but lacks an MLB-caliber third pitch and while he displays control, he lacks fine-tune command of his fastball.

He’s better suited to try to blow guys away an inning at a time.

Dunning, the Nats’ first round pick in the ’16 draft (29th overall), is big and strong with a good command of the strike zone and a good idea of how to pitch, but he’s several seasons from making a big league impact.

The bottom line is this: the Nats are only guaranteed to have a two-year window with Bryce Harper to win a World Series. This move helps that, and may help to extend that window for another decade. But it came at a very steep cost.

If the White Sox straighten Giolito out and Harper walks before the Nats get a ring, we’ll all look back on this deal and wonder, what if?