The trade made this afternoon between the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox is likely to go down as the most memorable move of the offseason. Even if this weren’t one of the worst free agent classes in recent memory, a trade involving arguably the best pitcher in the American League and arguably the best prospect in all of baseball should be the dictionary example under the word “blockbuster.”
BREAKING: Sale to #RedSox. Moncada, Kopech and two other prospects to #WhiteSox.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 6, 2016
Those other two prospects are RHP Victor Diaz and 2B/SS Luis Basabe, according to CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes. Those guys are lower-level players with some upside, but this trade is about the prospects named in that Rosenthal tweet.
Since we have other smart writers on this site covering what this means for the White Sox, let’s focus on that first name — Chris Sale — and what he means for Boston. He’s obviously the headliner here, and the player set to have the biggest impact in 2017 (and beyond).
There’s an easy argument to be made that Sale is the best pitcher in the American League at the moment, and has been since he made his full-season debut in 2012. In 2016 he ranked first in Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (6.9) among all pitchers. FanGraphs had him as the seventh-best pitcher in baseball, worth 5.2 fWAR. Baseball-Reference was the low man on Sale’s 2016, and they still only had 15 pitchers in front of him. Since 2012, really only David Price — now Sale’s teammate, by the way — has been comparably valuable, among pitchers who spent that entire period in the AL.
To put it simply: Sale is an ace, and he takes the Red Sox from arguably the best team in the American League heading into 2017 to the no-doubt favorite to represent the Junior Circuit in next year’s World Series.
For much of the last week, it looked like the Nationals had the inside track on Sale. Washington’s rumored package of Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles was certainly enticing, but Boston’s willingness to put baseball’s top prospect — Moncada — on the table allowed them to swoop in over the last 24 hours and land the biggest fish on the trade market.
In fact, the Red Sox will spend $25 million less on Sale over the final three years of his contract than they did to sign Moncada in the first place: $63 million, including the 100 percent tax for exceeding international spending limits. (They’re not saving money, though: Boston will reportedly pay all of the remaining money owed to Moncada). Sale’s three years and $37.5 million remaining on his deal means the Red Sox are not just getting an ace on the mound, but one of the game’s best players on a well-below market value contract that takes him through his age 28, 29 and 30 seasons.
That’s tremendous value, especially as we head into this new era of more punitive luxury taxes outlined in the new collective bargaining agreement. Before the new CBA, something like dollars-per-WAR didn’t really apply to a team like Boston, as they had the cash to just spend whatever they wanted without consequences. That’s how the team ended up with Moncada in the first place.
But if we’re estimating about $8 million per WAR over the next three years, and project Sale to be worth about 5 WAR per year over that time span, then he’ll be “worth” roughly $120 million over the course of his time in Boston. Subtract the $37.5 million they’ll actually pay him from that figure, and you end up with $82.5 million in surplus value.
In 2016, the Red Sox ran the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, at $166 million. They’re one of the few teams capable of really pushing up against those luxury tax thresholds:
Luxury tax thresholds in the new labor deal: $195 million in 2017, then $197M, $206M, $208M and $210M— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) December 1, 2016
Undervalued contracts like Sale’s are good for any team, but every dollar that rich teams like Boston can save as they approach the tax will really go a long way. The Red Sox are getting a $200+ million player for about a fifth of that estimated price. That’s huge.
Of course, it’s not just about the surplus value Sale will provide that leads to headlines like the one placed on this article. It’s the fact that Sale is joining up with a team that was already one of the best in baseball. Alongside reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and former Cy Young winner David Price, the Red Sox have arguably the scariest rotation in baseball. Combine that with what was 2016’s highest-scoring offense? Goodnight, American League.
By adding Sale to their rotation, the Red Sox obviously get to remove a less effective pitcher and assign that guy to a new role. Sale’s presence now means that just one of Eduardo Rodriguez, Clay Buchholz, Steven Wright or Henry Owens will occupy a return turn in the rotation behind the three pitchers we’ve mentioned and Drew Pomeranz, rather than two. Boston probably hopes that guy is Rodriguez, as he offers the most upside, but they’ll have depth at the very least. It’s not like you need a fifth starter in the playoffs, anyway.
Sale did come at a heavy cost, however. Moncada is the consensus top prospect in the game, and though his best fits on the diamond — second and center — were blocked in Boston by All-Stars, he had a clear path to playing time at third base. He wasn’t going to be ready on Opening Day, but his upside is tremendous.
Kopech is maybe the hardest thrower in the minors, and even if he’s ultimately a reliever, relievers that pump 100+ MPH don’t grow on trees. While Diaz and Basabe are lesser prospects and very far away from contributing at the big-league level, if they ever do, they weren’t just throw-ins.
But this is the price you have to pay for a player like Sale. Dave Dombrowski has never shown any hesitancy to part with prospects for big-league help, and this may go down as the most prominent example of that habit in his long career. The reasoning is obvious: The Red Sox want to win a World Series, and nobody who was realistically available gives them a better chance to do that than Sale. If you have to part with players to get him, then you give up guys that weren’t going to help you this year regardless.
That weakens the farm system, both in terms of depth in case of injuries and/or poor performance, as well as ammo Boston could use in future trades, of course. No trade comes free of risk. An idiot on this very site outlined the Red Sox’s options at third base just last week. Between this trade and another Boston made this morning, the depth (if you can call it that) at that position — one of the worst in the majors last season — is now significantly reduced. It’s some combination of Pablo Sandoval and Brock Holt at the hot corner or bust.
That’s okay, though. Boston has enough hitting elsewhere that they can live with some struggles at third. They did fine in 2016 without a threat at third. It won’t be difficult to replicate in-house what they got out of that position last year.
What could not have been replicated is what the Red Sox will get out of Chris Sale this season. That’s why Dombrowski went out and made this trade in the first place. And that’s why the Red Sox are now the prohibitive favorites in the American League.
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Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.