Chris Sale is a marvel, a perennial All-Star and top-five Cy Young finisher, and he throws a baseball like a Fischertechnik set sucked into a jet engine. Immediately after the Cubs finished their World Series parade, the White Sox should have been right behind them, recycling the confetti and holding a “We Have Chris Sale!” parade. No one would have blamed them.
And now the White Sox might trade him. (Edit: They have traded him, to the Red Sox. Keep on burnin’, hot stove.) There are ways it can make sense. That doesn’t mean it’s not a risk, and that doesn’t mean that their fans should be happy about it. Maybe if they could trade Sale for Andrew McCutchen from three years ago, and both fan bases could experience a new, beloved face of the franchise.
I’ve written why the White Sox should keep Sale, and the tl;dr version is that they have a head start on a rotation that would terrify other teams in the postseason, which means they have the hard part done.
But Buster Olney brings up the counterpoint to that argument, which is that Sale’s mechanics — which remind me of a half-built Ikea dresser thrown out of a window and shattering on the pavement below — aren’t built for long-term success. If you’re a fan of the anecdotal arts, you can use the “just look at him” argument. If you need a little more evidence than that, you can point to his declining strikeout rate and fastball velocity. Neither red flag is easy to wave away.
So, fine, I’ll listen to these arguments. They might even be correct. It’s the ol’ Branch Rickey quote: “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late." With the White Sox and Chris Sale, though, there’s a corollary. If Sale goes, everyone should go. Setting half of your car on fire still leaves you with a useless car. If there’s no perennial Cy Young candidate for a team that struggles to finish .500, there’s no use in pretending.
The good news is the White Sox are a very, very fun team to deconstruct.
Start with Sale, and assume the White Sox might get Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles from the Nationals, both of whom might be among the 10 best prospects in baseball. That would be a pretty sweet haul for any player. At the very least, they’ll get a top-25 prospect as a centerpiece, if not two or three prospects in the top 50. Or young, affordable, majors-proven talent. They have the leverage.
(Edit: They got Yoan Moncada, who might be the best prospect in the game, as well as several other prospects from a deep Red Sox system. Well played.)
What else could go at Crazy Jerry’s Discount Emporium? Oh, baby, so much stuff.
Basically as good as Sale over the last two years. We’re clear on that, right? Higher WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. Lower ERA and better ERA+ in each of the last two seasons. Signed at bargain rates for the next four seasons. If Sale can bring Giolito and/or Robles, and if the White Sox realize they aren’t getting someone from the Alex Bregman/Trea Turner class, Quintana’s return should be similar, if not equal.
Now the White Sox have at least two or three or four of the very best prospects in baseball. They’ll be in the top 100 along with Carson Fulmer and Zach Collins. And you can’t just stop here. These prospects are like popcorn shrimp, and you’re absolutely hooked.
Oh, heck, yes. Dingers, a high average, and a glove that reminds you that he hits dingers. Who would be interested? Just about everyone, but specifically the Rockies. There’s someone in an Andres Galarraga throwback jersey and a hopeful look in his or her eye, and I envy that person so much.
The price wouldn’t be as lofty as either of the two aces, but Abreu still has three arbitration-eligible seasons and would be dramatically underpriced compared to a market that might reward Mark Trumbo with $80 million. He wouldn’t come cheap, and he wouldn’t go in a quantity-over-quality trade. We’re talking at least one top-25 prospect, maybe two top-50 guys.
Now the White Sox have five or six or seven or eight of the very best prospects in baseball, and they can quit any time they want to.
Happy birthday, Adam! You’re on the Rangers now. Maybe. But we’re talking about a 28-year-old player who is under contract for five years, $38 million in a market where there just aren’t any good two-way outfielders. Either the free agent can hit (Jose Bautista) or field (Peter Bourjos), but there aren’t any who can do both.
Eaton can do both, and it’s made him one of the most valuable outfielders in baseball for the last three seasons. That, plus the contract, is good for at least a chunk of any farm system.
Do the White Sox have a 10th of the top-100 prospects list at this point? Possible. We’re four trades in, and this isn’t a bad rebuild at all. This team has players who are just perfect for this market. This isn’t like the Reds, who decided to sell a third baseman when the rest of the teams were satisfied with their third basemen. This might stink for the White Sox die-hards, but the franchise’s timing would be excellent.
Just a year left on his deal, but there’s enough demand for power to get at least a top-100 prospect back. Maybe two.
Have you seen what top relievers are expected to get this winter? Jones is still something of an unknown, but he has the strikeout numbers and power arm that drives teams wild. He took a leap forward with his command, too. Teams would give up plenty of prospects.
Plenty of prospects. Plenty of prospects. Plenty of prospects. Join us. Plenty of prospects. Join us.
Not the draw he used to be, but signed for $25 million over the next two years, and he’s just a year removed from the seductive K/BB numbers that would have made him one of this year’s most popular free agents. Maybe with a couple million kicked in, he can bring a return of at least one top-100 prospect.
We’ve done this before with the Reds. They held onto most of their best trade chips for too long. If the White Sox trade Sale, they just might decide to liquidate the whole lot at the same time, and they’ll have far more to offer the baseball world. These aren’t contracts that make other teams wince. These are contracts that make them salivate, and the players happen to be among the best at their position, in some cases.
And maybe if it all works out for the White Sox, they’ll turn this prospect straw into prospect gold, and they’ll have a cadre of young, talented players under reasonable contract terms.
Maybe some of these prospects will become as talented as Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, and Jose Abreu at the same time. Can you imagine that kind of juggernaut? If a substantial chunk of the fire sale prospects became cheap All-Stars for the same team at the same time? The mind boggles.
Which brings us to the same point that haunts us: If a team can raid the rest of the league and come away with a dozen top-100 prospects with a fire sale, maybe it’s not the prospects they really need. Maybe it’s better complementary players, which shouldn’t be nearly as hard to find. The Mets could also get a tour bus filled with top-100 prospects if they had a liquidation sale. That scenario excites exactly zero Mets fans right now.
If the White Sox are really concerned with Sale’s mechanics and long-term viability, though, that trade could be the kind of domino to start this whole thing off. They could also just trade him, and none of the other players, and hope that someone like Giolito can do a passable imitation in his stead. They could continue to mix and match, plug and patch, hoping for everything to coalesce the way it never did around Sale. The players up there are all young enough and cheap enough to make that a fine strategy.
That’s probably the likeliest scenario of a post-Sale world. Reload, not rebuild, but make sure you get as much as you can for the perennial Cy Young candidate while you still can.
If the White Sox want to hoard prospects and make the Winter Meetings bend to their will, though, they certainly can. That probably means there’s too much talent to consider a full, painful rebuild, but it has to be tempting. Because if they can’t win with Sale, with whom can they win?