It’s that time of year again. Or, at least, one of the two. July and December are prime season for major trade rumors, and for the Red Sox, Chris Sale is the name they’re currently inextricably linked with. Sometimes, as with Adrian Gonzalez, all that talk actually pans out. Usually, as with Hanley Ramirez, Johan Santana, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton...
Three days later
...and of course Roy Halladay, they do not. With Chris Sale, there’s every reason to believe we’re looking at more of the latter, and not the former.
It’s not that there’s no interest. Or at least, probably not. Obviously the Red Sox would want a player like Sale, but it’s still not completely clear they’re active on that front. Jon Heyman says they’re interested, but he’s once again doing that thing where he posits information but cites no actual sources, named or otherwise, leaving us all to guess. Still, with Peter Gammons having brought up the possibility of a Sale trade as well, saying Moncada or Benintendi would be the starting point, it’s fair to say we’ve at least got enough smoke to assume there’s a fire, however small.
There’s a lot of ground to cover between interest and a deal, however, and it’s difficult ground at that. The problem with Sale will always come down to valuation. Both how he’s perceived, and how the players the Sox would have to include to lure him away are perceived.
There are two versions of this possible Sale trade, with the major difference lying in whether the Sox have to include Jackie Bradley Jr. or not. After last season’s deadline, we heard that Bradley was the major hold-up in talks, and that right there should show you just how difficult it’s going to be to make this thing happen. In this conversation, where Bradley’s inclusion in a package of players is a hold up, there’s a pretty clear picture painted. Chris Sale is the superstar that teams should bend over backwards and overpay to acquire. Jackie Bradley Jr. is a good young player who rode a hot streak into an All-Star appearance but was otherwise unspectacular.
Jackie Bradley Jr. came in .4 fWAR shy of Chris Sale in 2016. By rWAR, that was actually reversed, with Bradley the more valuable player. This is a phenomenon that Red Sox fans are entirely unfamiliar with. Red Sox players—especially the young ones—tend to earn reputations above and beyond their actual contributions, not the other way around. But likely because of his start-and-stop introduction to the majors and the dominating presence of Mookie Betts, Bradley hasn’t really been given the full credit he deserves for the 216 games that have constituted his final call-up thus far. He is a well above-average bat playing top-flight defense in center field. He was the fifth best outfielder in baseball last year by Fangraphs’ valuations. And he’s under team control for the next four seasons.
This is not to diminish Chris Sale. What Bradley was in the outfield last year, Chris Sale has been on the mound for five straight. He’s been one of the five best for most of his career, and that sort of reliability matters. Bradley is less certain to repeat his season than Sale is to repeat his, which is a legitimate reason to look at a Sale-for-Bradley straight-up trade and think that it’s unfair to the White Sox, even at four years for three.
But this was never about Bradley-for-Sale straight up. It was about the Sox adding Bradley to the likes of Moncada or Benintendi. It’s not clear that’s still the case, but it gives you an idea where the White Sox were starting from in their valuation of Sale. That he’s worth not only an All-Star outfielder, but also one of the top-5 (top-2, arguably) prospects in baseball).
Oh, and probably Eduardo Rodriguez. And maybe Blake Swihart.
These are the names that keep coming up over and over again, and it just keeps pushing the valuations for sale further and further away from any point the Red Sox should ever consider meeting them at. Eduardo Rodriguez has a long way to go to be put in the same category as Chris Sale, but he did maintain a 3.24 ERA in the second half with a 9.15 K/9. There’s little expectation he’ll be Sale-like in 2017, but plenty of reason to believe that he’ll at least be some fraction of what Sale can be if healthy. Sale would likely be a significant upgrade over Rodriguez, but it would not be an example of the Red Sox filling a gap on their roster by trading away prospects who might never prove capable of pitching in the majors. If you don’t believe Rodriguez is capable of doing that, you’re reading way too much into outings that should have still been in a rehab environment.
That Blake Swihart, once viewed as a centerpiece for Cole Hamels, is used as an afterthought here is perhaps the final nail in a well-sealed coffin.
This doesn’t guarantee that no deal gets done, mind. It just says that if one were to happen, the White Sox would have to have come dramatically down from their July demands. Or at least we have to hope that would be the case. Because the alternative would be the Red Sox coming up to meet them, and in that scenario, it’s not just going to be a matter of the Red Sox jeopardizing their future to win now, but possibly selling the future only to reduce the quality of their team in the present.
So until we hear that the White Sox have changed their position, Chris Sale trade rumors probably deserve less excitement, and more skepticism and concern.