Lost in all the fracas of the “Chris Sale cutting up jerseys” incident and the suspension that resulted from it this past weekend was a pretty major bombshell about the White Sox ace: Chicago is listening to offers for him in advance of next Monday’s trade deadline.
It doesn’t seem all that likely that a deal will get done, however, and that’s not because of the jersey-cutting incident. It’s because Sale has the rare combination of control, affordability, and performance that we don’t see too often on the trade market.
Sale wouldn’t be a rental if acquired by a team this offseason. He’s not only signed through the 2017 season, but also has club options for 2018 and 2019, so he would be a three and a half year acquisition. This was also true for Cole Hamels, who the Rangers acquired from the Phillies last summer. But when Hamels was dealt with four and a half years of control left (including a 2019 club option), he was owed roughly $97.5 million (which includes the full price of the 2019 option. Sale? He’ll be getting less than half of that, around $44 million, through 2019 if both of the club options are exercised.
As a comparison, David Price is getting $30 million per year through 2018 and Zack Greinke is getting $31 million per year over the same time period. They’re each twice as expensive as Sale over the next few seasons, and the difference in their skills is minimal.
If you don’t realize how good Sale is, that’s understandable. After all, it’s not as if he plays in a large market, has been an All-Star for five straight seasons, and is on track for his fifth straight year receiving Cy Young Award votes. But I digress — none of that is important right now.
After starting off as a reliever in the majors for the White Sox, Sale settled into the rotation in 2012 and hasn’t looked back. Since the 2012 season, Sale ranks fourth among all starters in baseball in fWAR (behind just Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Price), third in strikeouts (behind Scherzer and Kershaw), fifth in strikeout to walk ratio, and ninth in ERA. The absolute worst description you can give Sale is that he’s a top ten pitcher in baseball. He’s much better than that (I personally would only take Kershaw over him), but there’s really no way you can argue he’s not a top ten start in the entire majors.
That aforementioned combination of control, affordability, and performance is why it’s so tough to find a match for a trade partner for the White Sox. Hamels got the Phillies five prospects of varying quality, but the Phillies also had to eat Matt Harrison’s contract and toss in reliever Jake Diekman because of Hamels’ contract. Price was dealt each of the last two years, but only came with a season and a half and two months of control due to his impending free agency. The same was true for Johnny Cueto when he was sent to the Royals last July – he was just a rental, as was Mike Leake (who isn’t really in the class of any of the pitchers named here today).
A Chris Sale trade wouldn’t just be for the second half of the 2016 season — it would also be for 2017, 2018, and 2019. A team wouldn’t have to worry about making space on their payroll for Sale because of how affordable his contract is. Leake is making almost 50 percent more than Sale over the next three and a half seasons. And then, there’s the performance: a player the caliber of Sale doesn’t pop up on the trade market too often.
The White Sox don’t need to trade Sale. But if they’re going to move him, their reported asking price of “five top prospects” isn’t remotely outlandish and shouldn’t be lowered in the wake of this weekend’s incident. What’s the worst that can happen – Chicago hangs on to him and continues to lead their rotation with one of the best pitchers in baseball? Oh, the horror!