Breaking down the Chris Sale Trade

Or, “Why the Red Sox could regret their decision.”

Last night as I was browsing baseball Twitter, I read multiple reports about how the Nationals were “close” to a deal with the White Sox to bring Chicago’s American League ace to D.C. I also saw stories about how “Dealer Dave” Dombrowksi, Red Sox President of Baseball Operations, was probably going to be particularly quiet at winter meetings, refraining from any blockbuster trades.

And then this happened:

As Rosenthal indicates, this a five person trade, with the White Sox sending Sale to the only other team named for an article of clothing in exchange for a haul of four prospects: IF Yoan Moncada, RHP Michael Kopech, OF Luis Alexander Basabe, and RHP Victor Diaz. Who won the trade?

We’ll start with Chris Sale. In Sale, the Red Sox are acquiring a low-paid and fantastic pitcher who is due $12m in 2017 and has club options in 2018 and 2019 for $12.5m and $13.5, respectively. Sale is a young and incredibly talented arm who has been stuck on an underperforming White Sox team since his debut in 2010. In going to Boston, he joins a rotation that includes David Price and reigning Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello and a pitching staff that boasted an ERA of 4.00, WHIP of 1.273, and K/9 ratio of 8.5.

Sale will likely only improve those numbers, having pitched his way to a 2016 ERA of 3.34 (career average of 3.00), WHIP of 1.037, and K/9 ratio of 9.3. Over seven years in Chicago, he boasted a total WAR of 31.1 for an average of 4.4 per season and 5.5 in the last five seasons.

Based on FanGraphs data, in 2016 Sale relied on only three pitches: a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. Opponents batted only .185 against his slider (his main strikeout pitch — 46% for Ks in 2016), and the GIF below shows you why:

His velocity has trended down since 2010, but his two-seamer still hits a healthy 93 mph on average (decreased from a 95.9 mph average in 2010), but it doesn’t seem concerning: his control has offset any batter gains from decreased velocity, and he only allowed home runs on 0.7% of pitches last year while inducing a groundball rate of 39% or greater on each of his pitches in 2016. Only Kershaw and Scherzer have clocked more strikeouts than Sale in the last five seasons, and only Kershaw (2.02) and Bumgarner (2.96) have better ERAs among pitchers with at least 1000 innings pitched in those five seasons.

From a business side, Sale’s contract makes sense because the Red Sox are only assuming one year of liability or, if things go well, an additional two years. If both options are taken by the Red Sox, Sale will hit free agency at the same time as Porcello, meaning that the Sox will likely eventually have to choose between the two.

On the other hand, I think the White Sox struck gold in netting Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. The switch-hitting Moncada has slashed .287/.395/.480 in two seasons in the minors, and though he looked overwhelmed in the 8 games he played with Boston in 2016 (.211/.250/.263), it’s a small sample size and is almost certainly not reflective of his actual performance floor. He’s lightning fast, and Steve Adams points out that in the minors he has stolen 94 bases in 109 attempts. His style, speed, and power has earned comparisons to Robinson Cano, the league’s leader among second basemen in total WAR over the last five seasons (33.3). (Dustin Pedroia is third with 23.9.)

Yoan Moncada: The Future of the White Sox Infield

Moncada would have been an upgrade for the Red Sox at 3B but was probably initially drafted as the eventual replacement for Pedroia, who in 2014 and 2015 looked like he might have been beginning a slow decline from his peak. Dombrowski and Co., though, after watching Pedroia post one of his best offensive seasons in 2016, probably realized that they don’t have an imminent need at 2B and could afford to trade away Moncada (even though they still need a good third baseman). In the end, the White Sox end up with an incredibly high ceiling on a player that they get for pennies right now (because the Red Sox are still on the hook to pay out for him) and who, in time, is likely to bloom into one of the game’s best middle infielders.

Michael Kopech is ranked by Baseball America as the #4 prospect in the Red Sox organization, and is a right-hander whose “elite” fastball reaches triple digits and who has posted a minor league ERA of 2.61 over 134.2 IP, including 172 Ks for 11.5 K/9and a K/BB ratio of 2.49. There are injury concerns, with calf and hand injuries keeping him out of some action this season, but Kopech is a high-ceiling prospect who could one day lead a rotation. FanGraphs extols his “electric arm” but acknowledges a weak changeup and struggles with pitch effectiveness. Ultimately though, he’s an effective pitcher who induces lots of ground balls and limits earned runs. Even if he ends up in a relief role in the majors, he could still be valuable. (Know any of those who can hit triple digits?) He’s young, with plenty of time to figure out his role.

The other two prospects, Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz, are medium-floor, low-ceiling guys who could round out 25-man rosters as a fourth outfielder or reliever. Basabe slashed .258/.325/.447 for Single-A Greenville last season, and Diaz earned a 3.88 ERA, 63 Ks, and 25 BB in 60.1 IP for Greenville.

Conclusion: The Red Sox got a relatively cheap pitcher on a short-to-medium term basis who has consistently proven to be one of the best in baseball. The big question will be how healthy Sale can stay, but at 27 years old he likely still has a decade left in the tank, assuming arm health. MLBTradeRumors notes that there were early concerns about his arm given his unconventional delivery, but those concerns have failed to be realized as he’s racked up high innings totals in all of his seven seasons. If Sale’s health holds, the Red Sox are in great pitching shape for the next three years.

But the price for the Red Sox was high outside of the dollar signs attached to Sale’s contract. In handing over Yoan Moncada, the midseason #1 prospect in all of MLB as ranked by Baseball America, the Red Sox are eating the $31.5m signing bonus that they gave Moncada, which was luxury taxed at 100% for a grand total of $63m. In this lens, the Sale contract doesn’t look very cheap at all, and could actually end up being more expensive over the next three years than David Price’s absurdly high deal. Toss in one of Boston’s top pitching prospects, and you have an expensive trade in money and talent capital. Of course, if the Sale trade pays off, Boston will have a World Series title in the next three years. But if they don’t, either Sale or Porcello is gone, and two of their best prospects are in the Windy City.

For Chicago, the deal is much less risky: they’re in rebuild mode, and a World Series this year or over the next three was never a realistic possibility. They’re giving up an ace who was earning them wins they didn’t need and investing in their future rotation and their infield. Even if Moncada performs “only” at the level of soon-to-be fellow AL Central second basemen Brian Dozier and Jason Kipnis, and Kopech provides the White Sox with solid 7th and 8th inning relief work, it’s still a winning proposition for Chicago.

So White Sox fans, take heart. Red Sox fans, hold your breath.

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