Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal published a piece over on FoxSports arguing that, if a team wants to put themselves in the Chris Sale sweepstakes, they should consider parting with one of their “can’t touch” players.
“Can’t do that.”
That’s the phrase baseball people often use when confronted with the possibility of trading a top young player. Can’t do that. Won’t do that. Don’t even go there.
The availability of White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, however, creates a different landscape — or at least, it should.
Rarely, if ever, have we seen a pitcher obtainable under circumstances like this.
Sale, 27, is not simply one of the game’s top aces. He also is under club control for three more years — and priced well below market value at less than $13 million per season.
The White Sox, then, are justified in setting an exceedingly high bar for Sale, and should not settle for less when they start hearing the proverbial “can’t do that” from one team after another.
Rosenthal goes on to list six players who fit the criteria of a cornerstone player, the kind that Rosenthal believes Sale should bring back in return as the foundation of a deal. Those players? Alex Bregman, Andrew Benintendi, Rougned Odor, Julio Urias, Trea Turner, and Dansby Swanson.
Rosenthal is right that Sale, based on his elite performance and remarkably underpriced contract, is worth this kind of player. It’s why he ranked as the 15th most valuable asset in the game in this summer’s Trade Value series, ahead of all six of those players. But if I’m one of the teams trying to make a deal for Sale, I’d still be inclined to try and say “no thanks” to a deal built around those kinds of players.
To be clear, this piece isn’t intended as any kind of knock on Chris Sale. I don’t think he’s overrated, or about ready to break down, or anything else that would cause me to shy away from paying a premium price for a player of his caliber. Sale is great, and Rosenthal is right that his combination of elite performance at a young age and team-friendly contract have not hit the market for quite some time. He’s worth a ton.
But I think that, in most of the win-now trades that have gone wrong for the acquiring team of late, there’s been a common denominator; they gave up a piece off their Major League roster that made the short-term upgrade too minimal to justify the long-term value surrendered. And I think that might well be the case with any of the players listed in Rosenthal’s piece, especially if they are just part of a larger multi-player package.
Before we get too far into the argument, let’s just look at some data. These are the 2017 Steamer forecasts for everyone listed in Rosenthal’s column, along with Sale’s projection, for reference.
As you can see, Steamer likes all of these guys, with perhaps the exception of Benintendi, who rates as a below-average player for 2017. But that’s a pretty easy projection to quibble with, because Steamer is assuming that Benintendi is a average defensive left fielder, when he profiled as a legitimate center fielder coming up through the minors, and could easily be a plus defender in left once he gets used to playing in front of the Monster. Realistically, if you buy into the scouting reports that suggested Benintendi was going to have some real defensive value in addition to a solid bat, then all of these guys look like average or better players for 2017.
Sale, of course, is better than all of them. He projects as a five-win pitcher in 2017, one of the legitimate true aces in the sport. A team with Sale is better than a team with Bregman, Turner, or any of the rest.
But when including one of these guys, the magnitude of the upgrade becomes a lot smaller. For the Astros or the Nationals, they’d be swapping out a +3 WAR player for a +5 WAR player, which has roughly the same effect on the team’s expected record as, say, signing Josh Reddick. Reddick is a nice player who made the Astros better, but I didn’t hear too many people talking about how that move dramatically changed the course of Houston’s 2017 season.
This was the problem the Diamondbacks ran into last year with the Shelby Miller trade. Well, besides the fact that Miller himself was terrible in 2016. But even if he had pitched like they expected, the Diamondbacks still wouldn’t have been significantly improved, because they had to give up Ender Inciarte‘s 2016 value in the deal. By subtracting a piece from the big league roster that was nearly as good as the piece they were getting, the Diamondbacks set themselves up to give up a bunch of future value for no real gain.
No one is going to make that kind of mistake again any time soon, most likely, but giving up a package of talent built around one of these guys would risk following in the same process that the Diamondbacks took in making the Miller trade. When you make one of these big splash trades to win now, you have to make sure you make your team gets a lot better in the short term. And that is tough to accomplish when you’re giving up an average or better player making the league minimum, since even the deepest teams don’t have those kinds of players just sitting around ready to fill the gaps.
Sure, if you trade a guy like Bregman or Benintendi for Sale, you can more easily go sign a replacement for what you thought you were going to get from the young guy this year in the free agent market, except that the trade will have also removed $13 million from your free agent budget. $13 million isn’t the end of the world, but it’s enough to get you Josh Reddick these days, so you’re not only giving up the young guy who can help you this year, but enough money to sign another complementary piece too.
And when you look at that alternative, it’s not clear that the team with Sale is dramatically better than the team with the young guy and some mid-level free agent. A little better, probably. Maybe a win or two better. But how much long term value do you want to give up to make your team better by a win or two this year?
If the White Sox were only asking for one player in return for Sale, okay, then give up Benintendi, Urias, or Odor. Sale is worth that, if it’s one for one. Or maybe even Bregman or Turner, though that would be a harder pill to swallow, given how good those guys could be in 2017. But Rick Hahn doesn’t want one player for his ace. He’s going to want a handful of players to give him a chance to build a new young core to build around. That’s the whole point of this trade for the White Sox; to reload with depth, rather than just having a few good players surrounded by guys who aren’t good enough.
And when you’re talking about giving up a package of talent, you have to make sure to get a lot better in 2017. Giving up a +3 WAR player for a +5 WAR player, while also taking on some extra salary, isn’t a big enough upgrade to justify the acquisition cost.
That’s why a Red Sox deal makes more sense centered around Yoan Moncada, who probably isn’t quite ready to help the Red Sox win in 2017. You swap out Moncada for Sale, and all of the sudden, the Red Sox are probably three or four wins better than they are right now. That’s a huge change in expected outcomes, and starts to be worth the long-term value being surrendered.
Most teams don’t have a Moncada, of course, which is why most of these deals often end up as five or six player packages, with teams keeping their best young players for themselves. Because contenders are almost never in a position where they can afford to just give up average or better players off their big league roster, especially ones making the league minimum, who allow the team to pay free agent prices to fill other holes. Once you have a guy like that, who can help you both now and in the future, it usually doesn’t make sense to use that guy as part of a package to try and obtain a better core piece.
That doesn’t mean Sale isn’t worth that kind of player. He is, if that’s all Chicago wanted in return. But the White Sox are going to want a handful of players to help rebuild their talent stock, and when you’re giving up multiple pieces of long-term value, you don’t want to build the package around a guy who is not that far from being as good as the guy you’re getting.