I’m not certain I’ve ever seen anything like Chris Sale before. From his rail thin frame, to his extraordinarily awkward and violent delivery, to his one month ascension through the minor leagues, to his frequent rage-fueled 98 mph fastballs to his absurdly team-friendly contract, Sale is unique in every sense of the word. On top of his astounding unique individual traits, during the past four years, Chris Sale has been one of the best pitchers in major league baseball AND he hasn’t yet turned 27 years old; which makes everything he’s done that much more impressive.
Since becoming a full time starter in 2012, Sale has thrown 789 (mostly) dominant innings with an average of 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), 2.0 walks per nine innings (BB/9) and fewer than one home run allowed per nine innings (HR/9). Only three other pitchers in major league baseball during this time frame averaged more than 10 K/9, fewer than 2.3 (BB/9) and allowed less than 1.0 HR/9: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg. Sale has also accumulated a total of 17.96 Deserved Run Average Wins Above Replacement Player (DRA_WARP) from 2012 to 2015; ranking sixth in the majors during that time behind the aforementioned Kershaw and Scherzer and other well-known top flight starting pitchers Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, and David Price.
So what does all of that mean? It means that Chris Sale is no doubt one of the top pitchers in major league baseball any way you slice it — end of story. He’s that good no matter what coast bias you have. However, the one thing that really separates Sale from all of these other pitchers is his contract. Going into the 2016 season, Sale has a guaranteed contract for two years and a relative pittance of a salary: $22.15 million over that time frame. However, Sale also has two team options in his contract which could take the total length and value of the contract to four years and $47.15 million; an average annual value (AAV) of a shade less than $12 million. Of the five pitchers that accumulated more DRA_WARP than Sale from 2012 to 2015, the lowest AAV salary is Felix Hernandez’s $26 million. Price, Greinke, and Kershaw all top $30 million in AAV and Scherzer is somewhere in between Hernandez and the others because of the large deferrals in his contract.
Sale also has increased his K/9 ratio each of the last four years while lowering his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) each year from 2012-2014 and maintaining his strong FIP from 2014 to 2015. In addition, Sale went on one of the most dominant eight-game stretches of pitching last year that the major leagues had ever seen; accumulating ten or more strikeouts in each game and posting an ERA of 1.80 during those games. This exciting stretch suggests Sale may not have even reached his peak as a pitcher and even better days may lie ahead of him.
And, of course, Sale is only going to be 27 years old on Opening Day, which is younger than any other pitcher that accumulated more DRA_WARP than him.
To summarize all of this very, very important context: Sale is every bit as good as the other pitchers that I’ve named (save for Kershaw who is essentially an other-worldly superhuman that decided he wanted to come to Earth and dominate the sport of baseball just because). Sale is younger than these pitchers, in all likelihood Sale is still ascending and improving as a pitcher, and most importantly, Sale is earning less than half of what each of these other pitchers are getting on an annual basis. All this adds up to the fact that Chris Sale would be really, really hard for any team to trade for and essentially may cost twice as much to acquire as some of his peers because the absurdly low wage he is making in comparison.
This finally brings me to my main focus of the article, what would it even take to pry Chris Sale from Rick Hahn’s cold, dead hands? Are there even any historical examples of pitchers this young, with this astounding of a track record of success, and this inexpensive getting traded? Really, there is only one example that comes to mind: Pedro Martinez. However, there were two key differences between Sale and Martinez.
The first and largest difference between the contexts of the two hurlers: Martinez had only two years of team control left, was going to be due very large increases in salary through the arbitration process, and this salary would have been unprecedented for the Montreal Expos as a franchise. In 1998, Martinez’s first year with the Red Sox after being traded by the Expos, his salary was a little more than $7.5 million. During that same season, the Expos’ Opening Day payroll for their entire team was only $8.3 million. If the Expos would have kept Martinez, he would have represented nearly 50 percent of the team’s entire payroll, assuming the Expos would have kept every other player on the roster that they had.
In comparison, Sale is under team control for four more years and has a relatively stagnant salary that is highly unlikely to eclipse even 10 percent of the White Sox entire payroll. From a financial standpoint, the Expos were highly motivated to move Martinez because they were not equipped to pay him the salary he was going to receive, and they had fewer years of team control left which made Martinez less valuable than Sale at the point of the trade.
The second main difference is track record of performance. Sale was essentially an ace level pitcher when he took over as a starter posting year-by-year DRAs of 3.16, 3.12, 2.52 and 3.43. Martinez posted DRAs of 4.10, 4.24, and 4.24 before he finally blossomed into the ace he was destined to be when he posted a stellar DRA of 2.30 in 1997, his final year with the Expos. Even making a simple adjustment for the average runs scored (which was about one fewer per game from 1994-1996 in comparison to 2012-2014, so lower Martinez’s DRA by roughly half a run) Sale was still consistently better and had thrown more innings as a starter in his first three full years as a starter.
Obviously, Martinez made a gigantic leap in that fourth season and that makes the difference between the two very murky. I believe that major league baseball viewed Martinez as an excellent pitcher going into 1998, but I would argue that it’s unlikely any team thought he would repeat his insane 1997 performance (though he would go on to do nearly that in each of the next three seasons). I know it’s hard to argue this because Martinez ended up hitting something like his 95th percentile of expected value added during that next four year period, but my best estimation says that there isn’t much overall difference in expected performance between Martinez and Sale over their next four seasons at the point of trade. Considering performance and salary restrictions and years of team control, it is reasonable to assume that Sale has more trade value right now than Martinez did at the point he was traded from Montreal to Boston.
Turning our focus to the trade return, Montreal ended up getting two highly regarded prospects from Boston in the trade. The Expos got the Red Sox second-best prospect in Carl Pavano (only behind Nomar Garciaparra) and prior to the 1998 season, Pavano was ranked by Baseball America as the ninth best prospect in baseball. The Expos also got Tony Armas, a raw international prospect who climbed all the way to being the 27th ranked prospect in baseball in 2000 when he started 17 games for the Expos and had a solid rookie season all things considered. This, given the financial constraints that were shackling the Expos, represented very, very good trade return. But knowing that the White Sox can easily afford Sale, and can control him for twice as long as the Expos could control Martinez dramatically increases the acquisition cost of someone like Sale. My guess would be that it would take at the very least two top-tier prospects along with a pair of prospects that are likely to crack top-100 lists soon and ascend over the next couple of years.
A massive trade chip merits a massive return and considering that most executives (and humans for that matter) are risk averse, the White Sox asking price for Chris Sale would likely be higher than the asking price I proposed, and the offering price for teams would likely be lower than what I proposed, as both sides would not want to be seen as “losing the trade.” This is why a Sale trade is just so ridiculously unlikely. Does anyone see the Dodgers giving up Corey Seager, Julio Urias, Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo for Sale? What about Boston sending a package of Mookie Betts, Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi for him? Or the Cubs surrendering Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres and Willson Contreras? Because, quite frankly, that’s what it would take and there’s not any amount of prospect hugging or Sale discounting that is going to change that. This is why young, superstar pitcher trades are so incredibly rare (and they’re rare for position players, too).
Trade packages like that are rarely, if ever, surrendered. The last mega-blockbuster trade like this was when the Detroit Tigers surrendered six players, including two top-10 MLB prospects and a total of four of the team’s top eight prospects, for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera to the Florida Marlins. And even this trade isn’t exactly apples to apples, so to speak. Cabrera in his four prior years to the trade accumulated just over 21 WARP while Willis amassed just under 12 WARP during that same time.
While the Tigers were most likely going to get Sale-level production from Cabrera and above-average production from Willis, making their overall value contributions higher than what we can expect from Sale, the Marlins were highly motivated to move both players because each had only two years of control left and were getting raises through the arbitration process. The Josh Donaldson trade from Oakland to Toronto also serves as another example of a star player being moved, but again, the same theme (cost savings) is prevalent in the deal, as Oakland was well aware that Donaldson would be getting significant raises through arbitration and saw an opportunity to maximize his trade value. Donaldson, after all, was entering his age-29 season and would in all likelihood enter his decline phase within a year or two. The White Sox do not have this kind of financial pressure, which increases Sale’s value to them. The White Sox also have the protection of two team options on Sale, so in a worst-case scenario, they could decline one of those options and protect themselves financially should Chris Sale completely implode.
Performance, age, finances, and even the White Sox position on the win curve combine to make an absurdly high asking price for Chris Sale completely reasonable. Because of that, Chris Sale isn’t going anywhere no matter how badly your team or fanbase wants him. Sox fans, sit back, relax, and strap it down and enjoy watching your ace pitch. It certainly is one heck of a spectacle.
Lead Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson // USA Today Sports Images