The top starting pitcher on MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 free agents ranking, released last month, was Jeremy Hellickson. Maybe Rich Hill (who re-signed with the Dodgers on Monday) would have led your personal list, but regardless, the market’s weakness was clear. If any team wanted to add an ace this offseason, it would have to be via trade, with one or more reputable prospects surrendered in return. On Tuesday, that possibility came to pass, following a flurry of rumors emanating from the winter meetings in Washington, D.C. The Red Sox acquired Chris Sale — by any measure, one of the five to 10 best pitchers in baseball over the past few seasons — from the White Sox for four prospects, including infielder Yoan Moncada, perhaps the best prospect in baseball, and righty Michael Kopech, who last season reportedly (if not accurately reportedly) touched 105 mph in a five-inning minor league start.
By blockbuster standards, it’s not surprising that the exchange of precious players involved these two teams and these particular players. White Sox GM Rick Hahn, who years ago drew a distinction between rebuilding and reshaping, has been dropping hints all offseason that replacing manager Robin Ventura was a prelude to a more dramatic re-something designed to pull the White Sox out of their extended stall. Sale, Hahn’s most valuable bargaining chip, was the subject of frequent rumors last winter as well as at the 2016 trade deadline, and dealing him was the quickest way for Hahn to jump-start his pursuit of something more than mediocrity. As for the Red Sox side: This is what team president Dave Dombrowski does.
Dombrowski, who left a lot of wins and a depleted farm system behind him in Detroit, joined the Red Sox less than 16 months ago and immediately set out to repeat the pattern. He’s already traded half of Boston’s top-10 prospects at the time he was hired in deals for veterans including Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and now Sale. The other half either regressed or got hurt, or he might have traded them too.
Moncada, who made his major league debut in September 2016, is the top prospect on MLB.com’s current overall rankings. Signed for a $31.5 million bonus as an amateur free agent in 2015 and not yet 22, he’s still fairly raw, with 45 games in Double-A his highest-level experience before the late-season-cameo call-up. Steamer projects Moncada to be a well-below-average major league hitter in 2017, although it’s fair to harbor some skepticism about that pessimistic projection, given Moncada’s limited statistical record and his exalted prospect status, which Steamer doesn’t take into account. Kopech, the high-walk, high-strikeout flamethrower who may end up at the back of a bullpen, ranks 30th on MLB.com’s list. The 20-year-old finished his season in High-A after starting it on the disabled list as he recuperated from fracturing his pitching hand in a fight with a teammate. He’s also dating a reality star. That sounds like a bad combination, until you remember that former minor league pitcher Cole Hamels also punched people and dated a reality star, and Hamels might make the Hall of Fame. Moncada and Kopech instantly become Chicago’s top two prospects. The not-insignificant throw-ins are High-A outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe and A-ball righty Victor Diaz, who ranked eighth and 28th on the MLB.com Red Sox top 30, respectively.
The common thread among all four of those prospects — who (according to a quick consultation with multiple prospect writers) are collectively likely to bump the White Sox system up 10 or more spots in the organizational rankings, from the bottom third to close to the top 10 — is that they aren’t likely to be notable contributors at the big league level next season. That means that as much long-term value as the Red Sox surrendered, we don’t have to do any deductions before appraising their short-term improvement, as we would have if they’d traded the slightly more experienced Andrew Benintendi (who’s slotted in as the starting left fielder) or a more established big leaguer. The Red Sox were probably the best team in the American League last season, and the acquisition of Sale (and high-strikeout setup man Tyler Thornburg, acquired earlier in the day in an immediately overshadowed trade with the Brewers) likely solidifies their status as the league’s top team entering 2017, maybe by a big margin. And with the other AL East teams seemingly standing still or taking small steps back, Boston’s path to the playoffs looks less obstructed than it did last year.
As rare (and possibly unprecedented) as it is to see a reigning top prospect traded — none of Baseball America’s preseason top prospects have ever been dealt while ranked no. 1, although Moncada didn’t climb to the top until midseason — we can’t entirely chalk up Moncada’s departure to Dombrowski’s aggressiveness. It’s rare to see someone like Sale traded, too. Sale, who’ll turn 28 in March, has thrown the 12th-most innings in the majors since 2012, his first season as a starter. Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 600 innings over that span, only Clayton Kershaw has a better park-adjusted FIP, and only Kershaw and Johnny Cueto have posted better park-adjusted ERAs. Sale is the sort of stud for whom it makes sense to trade top prospects.
Last season was Sale’s worst ever, by FIP, largely because he recorded his lowest-ever strikeout rate compared to the league. He also lost 2 miles per hour in average fastball velocity. Whether you consider those causes for concern comes down to whether you believe that Sale lost those strikeouts and whiffs on purpose. Last March, Sale and White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper planned on implementing a pitch-to-contact approach to last longer in games; sure enough, Sale threw more fastballs, at slower speeds, and aimed for the zone more often. Although his strikeout rate rose in the second half of the season, it never approached its 2015 level.
Although Sale wasn’t as dominant on a batter-by-batter basis, the plan may have paid off in the sense that he set a single-season high in innings pitched. And we probably can’t pin the decline in whiffs solely on Sale’s approach: As Jeff Sullivan noted last month, Sale suffered a greater drop in pitch-framing support from 2015 to 2016 than any other pitcher (according to Baseball Prospectus’s catcher-defense stats), thanks to the transition from Tyler Flowers to Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila. The less-strikeout-oriented Sale was still elite, but Boston could consider trying to bring back the bat-missing model next spring.
Either way, Sale should be Boston’s best pitcher, which is saying something given that the staff also features the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello, and the 2015 Cy Young runner-up, David Price. The rotation was a relative weakness for a strong Red Sox team, but plugging in Sale makes it a strength. About the only short-term downside for the Sox is that the loss of Moncada (and Travis Shaw, who went to Milwaukee in the Thornburg trade) places a lot of pressure on Pablo Sandoval to provide positive value for the first time since 2014. For the moment, Sandoval seems to be slimmer and sweatier than he was when we last saw him, even if he’s not about to rival Moncada beach body–wise.
Sale’s team-friendly contract contributed to the high prospect price. Like Thornburg (who bolsters a free-agency-sapped bullpen, and who’s probably better than you think), Sale is signed for three more seasons (including two team-option years), for a total of $39.5 million. If Sale were a free agent today, he might make that per year, while commanding a longer commitment. That’s a lot of surplus value that will now belong to Boston, whose young core of pre-free-agency position players — led by Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. — gives them a foundation of affordable wins for the foreseeable future, despite Dombrowski’s constant dealing for today. If manager John Farrell can keep Sale away from the team’s throwback unis and prevent him from getting overly protective of any teammates’ sons, both the Red and the White Sox should reap the rewards of this swap for a long time to come.