White Sox Acquire Long-Term Centerfield Solution

In case you missed it, the White Sox were involved in a three-team deal this afternoon, acquiring Adam Eaton and a PTBNL from Arizona for Hector Santiago (who is headed to Los Angeles/California/Anaheim). In doing so, they have locked up their centerfield and, hopefully, leadoff role until 2018.

Adam Eaton, though he was never an elite prospect, should be a very productive player on the South Side, and will come dirt cheap for a few more years. He was ranked the #73 prospect in all of baseball (according to Baseball America) coming into 2013 after a monster .375/.456/.523 line in 2012, and MLB.com ranked him #97 overall. Baseball Prospectus was never as high on Eaton as others, ranking him just 8th in what was a pretty strong farm system, but noted that he was a low risk prospect who would likely reach his ceiling of second-division starter.

The average AL centerfielder hit .258/.314/.401 in 2013, and Eaton should be able to match that line quite easily. Even though he is just a career .254 hitter, Eaton never hit below .300 in a full minor league season, and Baseball America graded his hit tool at a 60 (plus). Given his ability to work himself into good hitters counts, it’s reasonable to think that he could hit in the .270-.280 range once fully comfortable with the league. And that .270-.280 average likely comes with an 8% or better walk rate, 20+ stolen bases, and above-average defense in center. Even though his power probably never gets above the .150 ISO range, that’s an extremely valuable player.

And an extremely valuable player is just what a few projection systems think he will be. Steamer projects him to be worth 1.7 wins over 412 PAs (2.5 over 600), and Oliver projects him to be worth a whopping 3.6 wins in 600 PAs. Both systems project an OBP above .350 and a wOBA in the .335-.345 range. If Eaton is able to get on base at a .350 or so clip like these systems suggest he can, he’s got the potential to be a classic leadoff hitter for years to come. Over 700 PAs in the leadoff role, he’s got a chance to be a 4+ win player in his prime.

The loss of Hector Santiago hurts, absolutely, but there’s reason to believe the White Sox can replace his production in the very near term. First off, there’s quite a disparity between his ERA estimators (4.29 FIP, 104 FIP-, 4.20 SIERA) and his actual ERA (3.30, 80 ERA-) as a starter. I’m willing to believe that, with his stuff, he could improve his peripherals to the point of being a well-above average starter, but at the moment he does not strike out enough batters to justify his strikeout rate, nor does he generate enough grounders to drop his home run rate significantly. In short, he’s a good pitcher, probably a little above average if he holds up over 200 innings, but he’s not much more. I also have no way of quantifying this rationally, but I believe no longer working with Don Cooper will really hamper his run prevention skills.

To replace Santiago in the rotation, top prospect Erik Johnson will be ready to step into the rotation right away. Despite a shaky (5.40 FIP, but nice 46% GB rate), Johnson projects as a 4th starter right now, and a good 3 somewhere down the road. He’s not a sexy option, and probably suffers from Boring Name Syndrome, but he throws four above-average pitches with at least two of them grading out as plus. He should replace most of the 2-3 wins Santiago was worth last season, and fits right into the Santiago-shaped hole in the Sox’ long-term rotation plans.

In the outfield, Adam Eaton’s presence affords the Sox attractive roster options, whether they’re looking at a long-term rebuild or, inexplicably, trying to compete this year. One of Alejandro De Aza or Dayan Viciedo (or, hell, both) become pretty attractive trade chips, De Aza due to his three years of control and steady production, Viciedo due to his monstrous raw power. Acquiring Eaton also eases the need to develop 2012 1st round pick Courtney Hawkins, who struggled mightily in 2013. The Sox can now afford to let him progress much more slowly, or trade him if he regains his former prospect status.

If they try to compete in the near-term, a platoon of De Aza and Dayan Viciedo in LF would be ideal (De Aza could also spell Avisail Garcia at times). For his career, Viciedo crushes left handed pitching to the tune of .322/.357/.551, good for a .389 wOBA. De Aza’s platoon splits are neutral, but if he took 400 PAs against RHP away from Viciedo, the linuep would be much better off. Together, the two could post a .350 or so wOBA in LF, which would rank as the third best LF production in baseball in 2013.

If I were a White Sox fan, I’d be very happy with this move. Adam Eaton has a chance to be a borderline all-star, and he’s cheap and controllable until 2018. He should eventually develop into an ideal leadoff hitter, the type of table-setter a lineup with Jose Dariel Abreu in it will need. His defense and legs should carry his bat through developmental struggles early on, and the Sox can now upgrade other areas of need through trade by moving one or both of De Aza and Viciedo. It’s a long road back to contention in a strong AL Central, but moves like this one are a great help in getting there somewhat sooner.

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