If there’s one Royals prospect who’s been tough to figure out in the Royals system it’s been utility player Nate Eaton, who is currently in Triple-A Omaha.
Eaton is currently the 29th-rated prospect in the Royals system, according to MLB Pipeline. A 21st-round pick in the 2018 draft out of the Virginia Military Institute, Eaton has never been an overly-heralded prospect until recently, mostly fueled by his performance this fall in the Arizona Fall League.
Here is what Pipeline had to say about Eaton in their scouting report, going into the 2022 season.
The Royals waited until the 21st round of the 2018 Draft to select Eaton out of the Virginia Military Institute and initially announced him as a catcher, in hopes of utilizing his athleticism and arm strength back there. He never played the position and instead became an instant utility man in the Kansas City system. He batted .243/.345/.371 with six homers and 23 steals over 70 games for High-A Quad Cities in ’21 and turned some heads with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (.317/.352/.463 in 20 games). Eaton was still kept off the 40-man roster when he was Rule 5-eligible, but he has already moved up from Double-A to Triple-A this season.
The 25-year-old entered late June as a career .264 Minor League hitter and projects to be a below-average hitter in the Majors. One reason is that he has been guilty of swinging at pitcher’s pitches, leading to weak contact. That’s held down his slugging ability too, though he does have decent raw power from the right side. Eaton has still been a valuable member of every team he’s played for because his plus speed helps him steal bases and gives him range at all three outfield spots, second and third base, and even shortstop. His plus-plus arm has allowed him to play the bulk of his time at the hot corner, and it certainly works from anywhere on the grass. Eaton registered four assists in only 10 games as a Fall League outfielder.“No. 29: Nate Eaton”; Kansas City Royals Top-30 Prospects; MLB Pipleine
So far in 20 games and 80 plate appearances in Omaha, Eaton is posting a triple slash of .282/.350/.592 with five home runs and four stolen bases in five attempts. According to Fangraphs, Eaton is posting a 142 wRC+ and a .310 ISO. He is also doing this despite having a .288 BABIP, which is pretty below-average, especially in more hitter-friendly environments of the Triple-A International League (which the Storm Chasers play).
What Eaton is doing in Omaha is certainly impressive, even over a small sample. Though his low walk rate (6.3 percent) leaves a little to be desired, it isn’t out of the question to think that Eaton could compete for a roster spot by the end of the year, especially if the 2022 Royals season continues to go south, and if some veteran talent is jettisoned from Kansas City by the Trade Deadline.
That being said, while Eaton is certainly thrusting himself into the Royals prospect limelight, will he be able to sustain this performance as he gets more at-bats at the Triple-A level? Furthermore, who would he replace in Kansas City, should he get the opportunity, whether it this year or next?
In this post, I take a look at Eaton’s outlook and profile as a prospect, and how his presence in the Royals system could have an effect on a couple of players on the Royals’ 40-man roster, including Royals veteran utility man, Whit Merrifield.
What Can Eaton Provide the Royals?
What’s interesting about Eaton is that he’s been a late bloomer at 25-years-old.
Considering the prospect “peak” age is typically 26-years-old, it is surprising to see Eaton not really get on the major prospect radar until last Fall, when he tore up the Arizonal Fall League with a .317 average and .816 OPS in 20 games and 88 plate appearances.
His performance earned him a spot in the Arizona Fall League All-Star game, in which he hit a two-run triple, as seen below.
He started the year in Northwest Arkansas and posted good, though not great numbers. In 37 games and 159 plate appearances, Eaton hit .271 with a .731 OPS which included four home runs, 12 stolen bases, and 23 runs scored for the Naturals.
Unlike his time in Omaha, Eaton’s power wasn’t fully realized in the Double-A Texas League.
He only posted an ISO of .129, which was similar to the .127 mark he posted in High-A Quad Cities a season ago. In addition to only four home runs, he also only garnered five extra base hits other than home runs with the Naturals, which included four doubles and one triple. Despite possessing 60 grade speed, according to Pipeline, Eaton was not able to leg out a lot of extra base hits, which was a bit of a concern.
When he did get a hold of the ball though, he certainly connected hard, as evidenced by this home run below on April 29th against Amarillo:
Royals fans have seen the power stroke a bit more in Omaha, as he has more home runs with the Storm Chasers (five) despite having nearly half of the at-bats. Eaton has a natural power stroke, and when he utilizes his power tool properly, he can hit absolute bombs, like this moonshot at Werner Park on June 9th:.
In addition to having some surprising power for his 5’11, 185-pound frame, the former VMI Keydet also showcases a solid arm, which rates as a 70 according to Pipeline. His arm strength makes him a valuable utility player who can play both corners in the outfield, as well as third-base, which has been is primary position in the Minor Leagues.
Here is an example of Eaton utilizing his rocket arm in right field to throw out a Lehigh Valley runner trying to score from second to end the inning.
It’s easy to see Eaton and his arm play really well in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield, especially in right field.
Right now, the main knock on Eaton is his overly-aggressive approach, which has produced pretty meager BB/K ratios over the course of his Minor League career.
In 2019 in low A Lexington (the Royals’ affiliate at the time), Eaton produced 0.40 BB/K ratio in 557 plate appearances. While that number isn’t all that bad (0.50 typically is seen as the average), he did have a 20.8 percent strikeout rate.
After missing all of 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, his K rate rose to 23.4 percent with the River Bandits in 304 plate appearances. His walk rate did rise to 11.4 percent (from 8.3 percent in Lexington), which produced a 0.49 BB/K ratio in 2021. So, while there was some improvement in his plate discipline, he also saw a tick up in swings and misses in Quad Cities, which wasn’t the most comforting development.
It’s been a different story though in 2022.
Eaton has seen his K rate drop to 18. 2 percent in Northwest Arkansas and 18.8 percent in Omaha. Improving to see sub-20 percent K rates in the upper levels of the Minors is encouraging for Eaton and a sign of an maturing hit tool.
On the flip side though, his BB rate dropped to 6.9 percent in Northwest Arkansas and 6.3 percent in Omaha. Those are 4.6 and 5.2 percent drops, respectively, from a season ago in High-A. And thus, his BB/K ratio with the Naturals was 0.38, and it is currently 0.33 with the Storm Chasers, as of Tuesday.
Hence, the utility prospect is swinging more, based on what we can infer from the data. But is that a good thing?
Well, sort of.
The aggressive approach has certainly boded him well in boosting his averages and power. His patient approach only produced a .243 average in Quad Cities last year and .233 in Lexington in 2019. After those seasons, he was pretty much a non-prospect. Now though, he is a Top-30 one, at least according to Pipeline.
Eaton wasn’t ranked in the Royals’ Top 30 by Baseball America going into 2022, but it’s likely that he will make their mid-season list after the June draft.
In May of 2019, Baseball America published an interesting article about Eaton and how the Royals saw a lot of potential in him, despite his low draft status.
Here’s a snippet from the article in which JJ Picollo, Royals assistant GM at the time, compares Eaton to a certain player currently on the Royals’ roster.
“We drafted him as a catcher, but he has not caught for us because we like his speed and defensive versatility enough that we don’t think we’d benefit by catching him,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said.
Eaton may not be the next Salvador Perez, but he could be the next Whit Merrifield. This season at low Class A Lexington, Eaton has played third base and second base. Last year in his pro debut he also played right field and center field.
“He’s a similar player to Whit in that he plays multiple positions and plays hard,” Picollo said. “Eaton has big tools and was our player of the year in (Rookie-level) Idaho Falls last year. He’s a plus runner, has plus power and a plus arm.”“Royals See a Lot to Like From Nathan Eaton” by Alan Eskew; Baseball America.
Baseball America and even Picollo hint that Eaton could be Whit-esque…
And that could mean that the Royals will finally trade Whit, especially with Eaton knocking on the door in Omaha.
Does Eaton Make Whit Merrifield Finally Tradeable?
Eaton’s skill set does mirror Whit’s in a lot of ways, especially when Merrifield was in the Minors.
In the upper minors (i.e. Double-A and Triple-A), Whit never posted a walk rate above 7.5 percent and his power tool was also questionable, as he never hit double-digit home runs, nor posted an ISO over .185 between 2012 and 2016 in the Minors. Whit was better at hitting for high-average more consistently than Eaton, but Eaton definitely possesses the better arm as well as power tools.
Thus, it’s not so farfetched to think that Eaton could step in to Kansas City and be another Whit, even if it may take a half-year to do so.
Maybe Eaton won’t have that 40-stolen base potential or be a multiple All-Star like Whit. However, Eaton may be a better fit defensively than Whit at multiple positions, especially right field and third base, where they do not have long-term options on the 40-man roster.
Of course, Eaton will have his growing pains, and it’s possible that his overly aggressive approach will be exploited by MLB pitchers, especially initially. That being said, Eaton is the kind of player the Royals like: a hustler, plays multiple positions; and can provide some surprising pop when he makes contact (though it doesn’t necessarily result in home runs).
And Eaton is roughly eight years younger than Whit as well.
Considering that Whit only has one more guaranteed year on his current contract after 2022 (there’s an $18 million mutual option in 2024), it may be time for the Royals to starting looking at options who can fill Whit’s shoes. This is especially true with a younger lineup that, in the next few years, is expected to be led by Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez, as well as Pasquantino and Pratto when they arrive to Kansas City.
Unfortunately for Merrifield fans, Eaton fits into that young offensive group better than Whit, and that’s why the Royals should look to perhaps deal Whit, even if the return may not be what it once was a year or two ago.
And I’m not the only one to believe this. Alex Duvall and Joel Penfield of Royals Farm Report also mentioned on their most recent podcast that Eaton and Massey were key reasons why the Royals should look to finally trade Whit by the Trade Deadline.
I am not sure what Eaton will pan out to exactly at the MLB level.
Eaton could certainly be the next Whit. He could also be the next Mike Aviles and prove why he was drafted in the 21st round in the first place. Baseball can be unpredictable in that way.
However, Eaton is a prime reason why the Royals front office is not as bad as Twitter likes to make out.
I get that there have been some whiffs on first round picks, especially since Bubba Starling. That being said, the fact that a 21st round pick is making this much noise is pretty incredible, and a sign of the gains in player development under Picollo and hitting coordinator Alec Zumwalt. Massey is also a 4th round pick that has outperformed his draft status. The same could be said for Pasquantino, who was drafted in the 11th round in 2019.
The Royals could have a cadre of underrated, effective, and long-term utility position players who could solidify this lineup as soon as September of this season, with Eaton being one of the key pieces.
But Moore and Picollo will have to let go of players like Whit, Andrew Benintendi, and maybe more (Hunter Dozier is a possibility), which would signal the end of a disappointing era of Royals baseball from 2018 to 2022.
Let’s hope that Moore recognizes that the “Whit Era” needs to end sooner rather than later.
Because Eaton could be a part of a fun group of position players that could turn around baseball’s fortunes in Kansas City in 2023 and beyond.
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