What Does Adam Eaton’s White Sox Deal Say About Kyle Schwarber, FA Market in General?

Four years after trading him away to the Nationals for a return of righties Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning — who was just sent to the Rangers in exchange for Lance Lynn — the White Sox re-signed outfielder Adam Eaton. The deal is for one year at $7 million and has an $8.5 million club option for 2022 that features a $1 million buyout. In addition to the snake-eating-its-tail nature of Eaton’s return, this deal is interesting in what it says about the market.

First and foremost is that it appears to be a significant overpay for a 32-year-old who’s battled injuries in three of the last four seasons and has shown a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Eaton wasn’t considered to be one of the top 50 free agents even before nearly 60 players were non-tendered, so projections for him would have been in the range of $4 million or less.

Update: Eaton is already back to his crusty ways.

When combined with the above-market deals for Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton, this could be an indication that perhaps owners aren’t going to be quite as frugal as their whining over the last several months led us to believe. Then again, early deals tend to skew a little higher as contenders seek to secure that piece or two they feel will round out their team.

That’s what happened with the Cubs and Tyler Chatwood, so perhaps the Sox saw this as a chance to fill the void in right field after Nomar Mazara was non-tendered. Coming so quickly on the heels of the Lynn trade tells us that the Sox may see the addition of two veterans as the key to success in 2021, which fits with bringing Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel aboard last season.

Drilling down past general statements about the market, this move says a little bit about Kyle Schwarber future even as it muddies his present to an extent. The Cubs let their folk hero of a left fielder go rather than pay him in the neighborhood of $8 million because they didn’t feel he’d either produce enough or bring back enough in trade to merit the cost.

And that’s for a man who has a career 113 wRC+ even after a season in which he batted .188, largely because his power and on-base skills translated to a 90 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR this past season. He’s also heading into his age-28 season in 2021. Eaton is more than four years older and has a career 112 wRC+ following a 76 with -0.5 fWAR in 2020. If that’s worth $7 million, surely Schwarber would be worth significantly more. Right? I mean, right?

There had been some scuttlebutt about the slugger ending up on the South Side as an outfielder/DH option, but Eloy Jiménez in one corner already gives the Sox a significant defensive liability. Though Schwarber has improved a great deal out there over the last few years, Rick Hahn probably believed having those two in the corners would be sub-optimal.

Then again, his -3 DRS in left over the last three seasons is significant better than the -12 Eaton has generated in right in that same span. What’s more, Schwarber’s 8.1 UZR is far superior to Eaton’s -3.7 over the period in question. And again, we’re talking about one player still in his prime and another who looks like he’s headed down the backside of his career.

So did the Cubs screw up by perhaps undervaluing Schwarber’s appeal in trade? Did the Sox screw up by overpaying Eaton? Both? Neither?

The thing we have to consider about trade value is that teams are loath to part with any kind of significant prospects right now, so that has to be factored into any trade speculation. By which I mean that the value of Schwarber’s production in 2021 would have to be perceived as greater than the cost of his salary and the prospect(s) for whom he would be traded. Rather than accepting a mid-level lottery ticket, the Cubs saw fit to simply save money.

It does seem as though the Sox could have gotten Eaton or a reasonable facsimile for a much lower price, but they were clearly willing to pay a premium for someone they thought fit their team. For a roster with almost as much swing-and-miss as the Cubs, acquiring a contact hitter who has historically reached base at a .360 clip was worth the splurge.

Eaton boasts a career 16.8% strikeout rate and has never been above 19% in any season thanks to a minuscule 6.5% swinging-strike rate. For context, respective league averages were 23.4% and 11.4% in 2020. Schwarber’s averages are 28% and 11.9%, not exactly the kind of profile the Sox need. Nor do the Cubs, which is why they saw fit to part ways, at least temporarily.

I’m talking in circles here, so I should probably just get to the point and wrap it up. The one thing for sure we know about Eaton’s deal is that it means Schwarber won’t be wearing black pinstripes next season. We also know that the Sox and other teams will still pay more than the projected market value for players they feel offer a discernible upgrade or who serve as the right complement to their existing roster.

The issue for Schwarber in this environment is that, despite being an above-average offensive producer, his skillset is one teams feel they can acquire or replace at a much lower cost. His potential is greater than Eaton’s, but he’s also got more variance from high to low and teams operating with tighter budgets are going to play it safe. Or maybe the Cubs really whiffed and Schwarber will get $9-10 million from someone.

This is all just so odd and I can’t believe I find myself rationalizing it, but I should know to expect as much after the year we’ve all experienced.

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