Eaton brings edge, speed White Sox need
Center fielder's intangibles are appealing additions to top of order
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- One day late in the 2012 season, the Triple-A Reno Aces were playing their rivals, the Sacramento River Cats, in a Pacific Coast League game that came with some history and an unusual level of emotion.
Brett Butler, managing Reno, suggested to leadoff man Adam Eaton that he should consider bunting to get on base. Eaton did exactly that, pulling a drag bunt down the first-base line for a single.
Then, just because he could, Eaton bunted for another hit and then one more. He was 3-for-3 and hadn't swung the bat, and the River Cats were steaming. They drilled him in his fourth plate appearance, and Eaton promptly stole second base, then third base.
No wonder Lenny Dykstra, one of baseball's all-time pains in an opponent's neck, was the guy who was mentioned most often in the White Sox suite when scouts tried to paint a picture of Eaton for manager Robin Ventura and others not as familiar with him. The label slapped on him was "dirt bag," which has a far different meaning in baseball than business.
Rick Hahn, the White Sox general manager, adds a few other descriptors, including baseball rat, grinder and the ultimate, ballplayer.
"People sort of get the sense of what we're trying to talk about,'' Hahn said. "He's a big hockey fan, [so I'm] sure he'll be thrilled to be closer to the Blackhawks. He brings that kind of mentality. He fights through every at-bat, leaves everything on the field. He's got aggressive personality traits we like that are going to add to the clubhouse and help improve our mix there. [But] ultimately it's about getting the right baseball player and the right fit. His intangibles help round him out and make him even more appealing.''
Hahn sacrificed 25-year-old left-hander Hector Santiago to pick up the 25-year-old Eaton as part of the three-team trade Tuesday that most notably sent power hitter Mark Trumbo from the Angels to the D-backs. He and his baseball operations staff had identified Eaton as one of the best left-handed bats available to play center field and hit leadoff.
While the trade came together over two days at the Winter Meetings, Hahn said he only was willing to deal Santiago because it was "a pretty targeted strike'' to land Eaton. He is under team control through 2018 and Hahn expects him to make a major contribution, both through substance and style.
The D-backs were extremely high on Eaton before an elbow injury set the tone for a disappointing 2013 season, and why not? That bunting rampage against Sacramento was part of a 119-game stint in Triple-A when Eaton hit .381 with a .456 on-base percentage and 38 stolen bases.
Butler, who managed Eaton at Reno, said last spring that he's Mike Trout, without the power. That smacks of classic prospect oversell, but the scouts I talked with believe he can be a player in the mold of Brett Gardner, although there's some question if he will be the 40-plus basestealer that the White Sox hope. He didn't run much for the D-backs, going 7-for-12 in steals over his 88 Major League Games.
"I know he has the ability to steal  bases, given the right situation,'' Hahn said. "We know he has the ability to be that kind of player.''
The White Sox haven't had a disturber-of-the-peace like this at the top of their lineup for an extended stretch since forever, although in fairness not many other teams have either. His plate discipline could be a tone-changer for the White Sox, whether he hits leadoff or in the No. 2 spot long term.
Eaton is listed at 5-foot-8 but at times has claimed 5-9. He's had to prove himself throughout his entire career, so it will be nothing new if he plays with a chip on his shoulder after having been traded by the D-backs, who gave center field to A.J. Pollock while Eaton was recovering from a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, which sidelined him until July.
Eaton grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and was a 19th-round pick in the 2010 Draft from Miami (Ohio) University. His size worked against him both in recruiting and in the Draft -- he told Sports Illustrated he's still steamed that Ball State wouldn't give him a scholarship -- but along the way he learned how to maximize his value as a top-of-the-order hitter.
Based on the breakout 2012 season that ended with him holding his own in a 22-game Major League stint in September, Eaton was a preseason Rookie of the Year candidate last spring. But those hopes turned into a numbing reality when his left elbow started barking in March. He needed a long time to get back on track, eventually hitting .252 with three home runs and a .314 on-base percentage in 66 games.
Suffice it to say he'll be back into prove-it mode this spring. That could be a beautiful thing for a White Sox team that continues to overhaul itself, getting younger and maybe a little bit edgier, too.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.