For the longest time I wish the Royals could get Eaton on their team. He was fast, a terrific defender, and had some unexpected pop in his bat. Of course, I was thinking of Adam Eaton. But the early returns on Nate Eaton make me prefer him over Adam, easily.
Some people like to start with the good news and then work their way back around to the bad. Me, I’ve always been all about saving my favorite parts for last. So let’s get the caveats out of the way for Nate Eaton. He has never once approached a top-100 prospect list. His prospect ratings on FanGraphs suggest that expecting him to hit at even an average pace would be a fool’s errand. He’s expected to be a bench player at best.
With that out of the way, let’s dream a little. Eaton is only 25, so there is room to dream on his frame and even FanGraphs thinks he’s got power, they’re just not sure he can access it in-game. During his short stints in the big leagues during 2022 he didn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment at all. He strikes out about a quarter of the time which is a bit high unless you’re going to be a power guy, but he also walked more than 8% of the time which is very high for pre-2022 Royals hitters. He doesn’t swing at a ton of pitches outside the zone but does seem to have some trouble with contact inside the zone. His exit velocity numbers are not great, but he sprays the ball all around the field.
Even better, absolutely no one really questions his glovework in the outfield or at third base - the metrics even like him in the small sample sizes. His arm is checks notes in the top one-hundredth percentile in all of MLB. As in, nobody throws harder than he does. He’s in the ninety-seventh percentile in sprint speed and, unlike other fast guys like Michael A. Taylor, he actually knows how to use it to rob a bag. He swiped 11 bases in 44 games for the Royals this season and only got thrown out once.
In his major league debut season he hit a 101 wRC+ while playing somewhat sporadically, stole bases every time he could, made sensational plays on defense every night and generally looked like a competent major league player. Ultimately, he was worth 0.9 fWAR for KC in his quarter season which, if expanded across a full year, would be nearly All-Star worthy. And if he could figure out how to solve some his contact issues at the plate and tap into his raw power a bit more he could immediately become a star.
I compared him to Adam Eaton earlier, but that’s not really a great comparison. The older Eaton was never the base-stealer than Nate already is. Outside of one fluke season, the advanced metrics suggest Adam was a more mediocre defender than I remembered, too. There is a player comparison that makes a little bit more sense, however.
If I described for you an outfielder with more pop than you’d expect, a suspect bat, but a good enough eye to take his fair share of walks you could probably imagine a lot of guys. If I added that he was blazing fast and drafted in a round that doesn’t even exist anymore I expect most of you would think I was talking about Jarrod Dyson. And hey, I could be! But those things all describe Nate Eaton as well. Those traits ended up being Dyson’s ceiling while they’re Eaton’s floor.
Another way to describe Dyson’s career is as a guy who stuck around in the majors for more than 10 years. A guy who stole one of the most important bases in franchise history. A guy who walked away from it all with a World Series ring. Jarrod Dyson will never end up in the Hall of Fame. He probably won’t even end up in the Royals’ Hall of Fame. However, he will forever be remembered by fans of the 2014 and 2015 squads as a key player and a legend.
And that is Nate Eaton’s floor, if the Royals manage to build a club around him.
How would you grade Nate Eaton’s 2022 season?
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(P.S. I’ll give Nate a B for his season. He’s got a bright future and he made an overall net-positive impact to start, but it’s not like there wasn’t room for improvement, either.)