You Don't Have To Like Adam Eaton

Ozzie Guillen says everyone hates the man. He had his worst year in 2020. Greater prizes continue to remain on the free agent market. Injuries, including a horrific tear of an ACL, have slowed him down the past few seasons. Social media reaction has been, to put it mildly, underwhelming.

So don't expect a bright, big, red welcome mat to be rolled out in Arizona for Adam Eaton once spring training begins, whenever that may be.

Of course, many of the same fans who are angry about the White Sox signing Eaton - one year at $7 million with a club option for 2022 at $8.5 million - also were grousing all summer about Nomar Mazara, whom the up-and-coming South Siders obtained in a trade exactly one year prior to bringing Eaton back to town to fill the void in right field. Mazara was an abject failure, hitting one lonely home run while posting an OPS of .589, compared to .754 over four years with the Rangers. Even the amateur gamblers likely would take the Over that Eaton can top those numbers.

However, focusing solely on the acquisition of Eaton, regardless of one's opinion, is misplaced.

"If we spend the entirety of what we have to spend on one position, obviously other needs aren't addressed," general manager Rick Hahn said upon signing Eaton last week.

Right field is just one of the Sox' priorities. George Springer is the plum of the free agent market, although the Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley were attractive since each, like Eaton, bats left-handed, a desirable commodity in the Sox' right-handed-heavy batting order.

However, each would have been more expensive, and, despite the marvelous news that Lance Lynn now is in the fold for one season, starting pitching remains the team's biggest need.

And because James McCann has become a member of the Mets, a backup catcher to Yasmani Grandal sure would be nice, Oh, and the team needs a closer, having lost Alex Colomé to free agency.

Liam Hendriks, whose $5.5 million salary last year was about half of what Colomé was paid, is available, having been cut loose by the budget-conscious A's. Hendriks the last two seasons has emerged as one of baseball's most effective closers, recording 39 saves and an ERA of 1.79. Assuming that Hahn has limits on Jerry Reinsdorf's bankroll, judiciousness is required. Hence, it's Eaton over Pederson or Brantley, and Springer's chances of playing on the South Side were no better than the Supreme Court flipping six or seven million votes.

Taking a closer look at Eaton, he played in 41 games last season before fracturing an index finger attempting to lay down a bunt. The Miami of Ohio product slashed a career low .226/.285/.669, far inferior to his career line of .282/.360/.775. Eaton's walk rate last season decreased to 6.8 percent of his plate appearances compared to his 9.1 over nine major league seasons. His average for batted balls in play was just .260 in 2020 compared to .335 for his career. The White Sox, who were 24th last season in drawing bases on balls and dead last the season before, need Eaton to go deep into counts and take as many walks as possible.

Let's keep in mind that the sample size for this past truncated season was quite small, like a fourth of a full season in Eaton's case. Furthermore, when Eaton played for the Sox in 2014-16, he started off slowly his first two seasons, batting .248 and .238, respectively, after 41 games. In three full seasons patrolling the outfield for the Sox, Adam's slash was .290/.362/.783. If he comes anywhere close to those numbers in his second stint on the South Side, the critics will have to direct their displeasure elsewhere.

However, the 32-year-old Eaton brings other baggage back to The Grate. Is signing Eaton a move backward, much like the hiring of Tony La Russa? Eaton performed admirably last time around, but now he's older, more fragile, and has possibly seen his better days. On the heels of La Russa's return, maybe another homecoming is too much to digest for some Sox fans. Had Rickey Renteria kept his job, the Eaton signing very well could have raised far fewer eyebrows.

Then there's the rap that echoes Guillen's comments about Eaton's popularity, or lack thereof, in the clubhouse. His feud with former Sox third baseman Todd Frazier bubbled over first in 2016 when the two had to be separated in the clubhouse - their lockers were next to one another - before coming to blows. A couple of dust-ups when each moved to the National League followed.

Of course, Frazier departed our fair city long ago. In fact, only three members of that 2016 squad - José Abeu, Tim Anderson and Leury Garcia - still are with the Sox. The rest of the guys have no history with Eaton, although Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez briefly were teammates in Washington.

Looking back four seasons, one can justifiably assume that the Sox clubhouse was a mess. As much as vice president Kenny Williams would like to, don't forget that Adam LaRoche walked away from $13 million in the middle of spring training after being told that his 14-year-old son was no longer welcome in the Sox clubhouse.

Eaton at the time was the team's union representative, an elected position which, because of Eaton's public reputation, makes you wonder whether this was more of a punishment than a reward. He along with Chris Sale were especially critical of management at the time.

Of course, later in the year Sale utilized the training staff's scissors to dismember one of those throwback uniforms that displeased him. It's safe to assume that Eaton wasn't the only problem in that clubhouse. Dysfunction reigned.

Apparently Eaton's behavior and demeanor were overcome in 2019 when the Nationals won a World Series with Eaton playing in 151 games and slashing .279/.365/.792 along with 15 homers and an equal number of stolen bases. He followed that in the World Series by hitting .320 with a .993 OPS as the Nationals dispatched the Astros in seven games.

If this sounds like the first installment of the reincarnation of the Adam Eaton Fan Club, please understand that by next July or August we all will see how this plays out. Eaton's skills may continue to diminish as they did last summer, but obviously Hahn is thinking otherwise, and not without investigation and experience with this particular athlete.

The clubhouse charge reflects the thinking in baseball that creating culture, teamwork and camaraderie are integral to having a winning ballclub, and setting those goals makes sense. But those warm, fuzzy feelings for one another don't always materialize. Many don't even speak the same language. We're talking about 25 young men along with a parade of new faces due to injuries, trades, and demotions and promotions from the minor leagues. The cast changes on a regular basis.

What can promote togetherness is winning. A team fighting for a division title or even greater heights has added incentive to play hard and support one another.

So maybe you can't go home again. However, this is a different time, and, as far as the White Sox are concerned, a different dynamic. If Eaton stumbles and falls, either figuratively or literally, someone else will step up. That's what good ballclubs do.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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