He struggled in 2020 — posting a .285 on-base percentage in 41 games — and had his season cut short by a fractured left index finger. The Nationals then declined their $10.5 million option for Eaton in late October. He turned 32 years old Sunday. He would admit to never being the same since April 28, 2017, when he tore the ACL in his left knee. He appeared in just 23 games that season. His numbers steadied in 2018, yet more injuries kept him sidelined for long stretches. Any criticism grew louder once Giolito emerged as a front-line starter the next year. But a counterpoint came once Eaton delivered big in the World Series.
His final line across seven games against the Houston Astros: eight hits, two homers, six RBI, four walks and five runs scored. He knocked in a late insurance run that gave the Nationals breathing room in Game 7. When asked about Eaton’s future in the spring of 2019, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo mentioned winning multiple titles with Eaton in right field. One championship, as it turns out, was a pretty good result.
“He’s one of the reasons why we did what we did last year,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Eaton in late September. “He was healthy last year and you could see what he can do when he’s fully healthy. He’s an unbelievable player. He’s a sparkplug on this team. His teammates mean a lot to him. This organization means a lot to him.”
As the year wound down, it was clear Eaton’s option wouldn’t be picked up. And while he didn’t rule out the possibility of returning, Eaton was willing to reflect on his time with the Nationals. They were expected to use a corner outfield spot to upgrade their offense. Andrew Stevenson, a spry 26-year-old, had emerged as a logical fourth outfielder for 2021. It made sense for both Eaton and Washington to move on.
That he is now going to back to Chicago, and will soon share a dugout with Giolito, is a layered development. Eaton clashed with White Sox teammate Todd Frazier in 2016. After Adam LaRoche retired because his son, Drake, was no longer allowed in the clubhouse, Eaton backed both Adam and Drake. Frazier then called Eaton out to a reporter and their lockers, once side by side, were moved to opposite sides of the room.
This is the feud that brought baseball’s greatest mortgage saga. It also led Ozzie Guillen, a former White Sox manager, to say of Eaton on TV: “Nobody liked you in a White Sox uniform in the clubhouse.” That was in May 2019, just after Eaton and Frazier’s latest run-in devolved into traded home-ownership snipes. The takeaway was that, beyond a handful of productive seasons, Eaton seemed to leave some beef back in Chicago.
Manager aside, though, this is a team moving in the right direction. It made the playoffs in 2020 before falling to the Oakland Athletics. Giolito is a surefire ace in front of former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. The White Sox padded their rotation by trading for Lance Lynn — sending Dunning to Texas — on Monday night. Their lineup is stacked with José Abreu, the reigning AL MVP, as well as Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert.
“This offseason will be to completely get healthy again. Coming into camp here, I had some issues and things that can be cleaned up pretty well with a couple of months off,” Eaton said in September before showing what could make him a good fit for the White Sox. “I want to play for as long as they will let me play. I love being the older guy in the clubhouse, being able to mentor the younger guys.”