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With Chris Sale trade, the White Sox have committed to a full rebuild

By trading their ace, Chicago has indicated their embrace of long-term goals. He won’t be the last player they send away this offseason.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason went from moderately unexciting to insane in a split second on Tuesday morning, as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox reportedly finalized a major trade. Chris Sale, Ace, is now a member of the Red Sox, while super-prospect Yoan Moncada is a member of the White Sox, along with flamethrower Michael Kopech and two other currently unidentified prospects.

There is a lot to be said about this deal. The Red Sox have what would appear to be an insane rotation, headed by two dominant lefties and the 2016 Cy Young winner, while the White Sox just acquired a consensus top-three prospect across all of baseball. We’ll have plenty of coverage of all those aspects, but what I want to focus on is what this says about the White Sox, and their apparent embrace of rebuilding.

Chris Sale is not someone you trade away halfheartedly. He’s under contract for three more seasons at a total of $38 million. Over his last three seasons, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball, worth 16.6 fWAR (fourth-best leaguewide) and 19.1 WARP (fifth-best leaguewide), and he’s only 27. He is a true ace and possibly the best starter in the American League; there is a lot of surplus value on that contract.

He’s also not a “rental,” a player with only a short time remaining on their contract. Even a team like the Phillies, that probably won’t be good this next year but is aiming to contend in the near future, would be interested in Sale. There are only a few teams leaguewide that wouldn’t be thrilled to add the left-hander, and the distinguishing feature they all share is a longer timeline for success.

By making this trade, the White Sox appear to have put themselves firmly in the latter camp, and committed to a full rebuild. If they were planning on forgoing 2017 but trying to compete in 2018 and ‘19, I doubt we’d see this trade; Sale is likely to be just as valuable then as he is now. Chicago is not taking any half-measures.

The return they got shows why they’ve made the choice not to. A committed, aggressive rebuild requires a team to accept several consecutive years of poor performance, and forego any opportunity to make the kind of miracle run that mediocre teams sometimes make (e.g., the 2015 Kansas City Royals). The benefit is that they get to trade Sale now, instead of in a year or two when they realize they aren’t actually going to be good in 2018–19, and collect a massive haul in return. It’s painful to see him go, and painful to think about what the next few years might hold, but they’ll be competitive sooner under a full rebuild than they would be under a failed attempt to extend their already-thin competitive window.

The natural question, then, is who’s next. The White Sox are in this position because their roster isn’t particularly talented, but Sale isn’t their only valuable piece. There are several players who have demonstrated their abilities, and that other teams would love to have, but that, like Sale, aren’t going to be part of the next competitive White Sox team.

Jose Quintana

Whether Quintana gets traded will be the big litmus test for the extent of this White Sox rebuild. While he doesn’t have nearly the same reputation as Sale, Quintana is also a 27-year-old lefty, and he might just as good. In the last three years, he’s at 14.6 fWAR (8th-best) and 13.3 WARP (16th-best). But Quintana is also signed for an additional year over Sale, through 2020, and for only $36 million.

The White Sox aren’t going to make great use of at least two of Quintana’s remaining four years, and with his lack of prospect pedigree, they might worry that he won’t maintain his dominance for the entirety of his contract. But with four years of excellence under his belt, I think Quintana has proven himself excellent, and if the White Sox are aiming for a quick turnaround, he could easily fit into their plans for 2019 and 2020. He’d bring back a huge haul, however, within the same range as Sale did, and that might simply be too much to pass up. If he does get dealt, it might mean that the White Sox front office is planning for a longer timeline, and not planning on competing until possibly 2020 or later.

Jose Abreu

The Cuban slugger is also signed through 2019, but he opted out of his set contract value of $34 million and will instead go through arbitration each of the next three years. He’s trended downward pretty severely since his arrival in 2014 — from 5.3 fWAR and a 167 wRC+ to 3.0/129 in 2015 and 1.6/118 in 2016 — but there’s definite frontline-slugger upside. Teams have also demonstrated a willingness to overpay for righthanded power hitters in the past, and the White Sox might be able to take advantage of that.

If I had to guess, I think Chicago might hold onto Abreu and hope that he re-establishes some of his value with a hot few months to open the season, but if they get a good or even a decent offer, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him traded in a heartbeat. Even ignoring the downward trend, by the final year of his contract, the first year the White Sox might hope to contend, Abreu will be on the other side of his peak, and his is not a profile that tends to age well.

Todd Frazier

Frazier was the White Sox’s big acquisition of last winter, coming in from the Reds after a career year. He regressed substantially in 2016, losing value both offensively and defensively and, per both fWAR and WARP, going from an All-Star caliber player to more of a solid regular. With only one season left before he hits free agency, I would be shocked if he started the season in a White Sox uniform. His value might not be at its peak currently, but there’s no guarantee it’ll get any better, and given the White Sox’s outlook for 2017, his value to them is already zero.

There are other good pieces on this roster, but I think the White Sox are probably planning to build around Carlos Rodon and Adam Eaton. Those are the kinds of players they’re hoping these prospects turn into in the next one-to-three years, so sending them away doesn’t make any sense.

Alone, the Sale trade has done a lot to rehabilitate Chicago’s long-term prospects, but it indicates a new indifference to the results of the 2017 season, and probably the 2018 season as well. Sale is a great pitcher, and Chicago fans are going to miss him, but the White Sox have shifted to planning for the future, and this certainly won’t be their last move aimed at that end.

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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.