Welcome to Smash or Pass, a new offseason series in which we’ll examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re discussing Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease.
Who is he and where does he come from?
He’s a 27-year-old right-handed starting pitcher with the Chicago White Sox. He was drafted out of Milton High School in Milton, Georgia, in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and made his MLB debut in 2019. Entering that season, he was ranked the 58th best prospect in baseball by FanGraphs.
Is he any good?
Although Cease made his MLB debut in 2019, he didn’t really make a name for himself at the big league level until his breakout season in 2021. He started in 32 games that year and struck out an astonishing 31.9 percent of the batters he faced while posting a 3.91 ERA, 3.41 FIP and 112 ERA+. He followed that up with an even better campaign in 2022, finishing the year with a 2.20 ERA, 3.10 FIP and 180 ERA+ over 32 starts and 184 innings. He nearly snagged the AL Cy Young Award for his efforts (and very well could have) but ended up coming in second to Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros.
Expectations were high for Cease entering 2023, but he stumbled a bit, losing some velocity on his fastball and some notches on his strikeout rate, ultimately netting out with a 4.58 ERA, 3.72 FIP and 98 ERA+ (under 100 is below average).
A major culprit of his relative undoing in 2023 had been lurking below the surface even while he dominated in 2021 and 2022, as Cease has a tendency to struggle with his control. Since 2021, he has the seventh-highest walk rate among qualified pitchers and he’s also led the AL in wild pitches twice in the last three years (including a MLB-high 14 in 2023). Those control issues didn’t sink him in 2021 or 2022 (even though he walked an MLB-high 78 batters in the latter year), but he couldn’t outrun those demons in 2023. In addition, Cease threw his fastball a full mile per hour slower than in 2022 and batters took advantage, with Cease’s fastball grading out with a -3 run value, according to Baseball Savant.
Despite the very concerning regression in 2023, there were still things to like about his performance. For starters, although he gave up too much hard contact, he actually had an identical barrel rate compared with his near Cy Young 2022 season. In addition, despite a drop in his strikeout rate, he still ranked among the top 10 qualified pitchers in the statistic, and while his fastball lost some juice, his slider remained electric. Speaking of that slider, perplexingly, despite finding incredible success using the offering as his most utilized pitch in 2022, Cease threw his slider less in 2023 (38.6 percent of his pitches) compared with 2022 (42.9 percent), opting to lean more on his fastball like he had from 2019 to 2021.
Overall, even with some regression last season, since emerging in 2021, Cease has accumulated the eighth most fWAR among qualified pitchers (12.6), putting him just a tick behind 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara. He’s also been incredibly durable, making at least 32 starts in three-straight season, so even when he’s not at his best, he’s still a reliable starter any team could plug into its rotation. If he can finally harness a bit more control and correct some of his issues from last year, his ceiling is exceptionally high.
Tl;dr, just give me his 2023 stats.
33 starts, 177 IP, 27.3 percent K rate, 10.1 percent BB rate, 4.58 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 98 ERA+
Why would he be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
Did you know the Red Sox did not have a single starting pitcher qualify for the ERA title last season? Not a one. And don’t get any ideas about the rotation being better than the sum of its parts. With respect to the solid years of Brayan Bello and Kutter Crawford and brief glimpses of greatness from veterans like Chris Sale, James Paxton and Nick Pivetta, the Red Sox lacked consistently strong starting pitching in 2023, and they also had their lack of solid depth exposed when guys got injured. They tied with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers for 21st in starting pitching fWAR, and the Dodgers were so desperate to mend the myriad holes in their rotation that they famously traded for Lance Lynn and gave him starting innings in the postseason.
The long and short of it is the Red Sox need high upside, durable starting pitching and that’s just what Cease can deliver. He’d be a perfect fit for this team.
Why would he not be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
If you think Cease’s regression in 2023 is a sign of things to come and his erratic control can’t be improved (or at least forgiven), then he’s likely not worth the trade cost (more on that shortly), even if the Red Sox need guys to eat innings.
Is he available?
Cease’s name was bandied about at the trade deadline this past summer and the White Sox weren’t hanging up the phone immediately on teams. While a deal ultimately failed to come to fruition, coming off a 61-101 season and with a new GM in place, the White Sox aren’t exactly in a better position now, so they may still be open to entertaining a discussion. However, as Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors pointed out in his offseason preview for the White Sox, the White Sox seem more interested in “a quick turnaround” rather than an outright reset, making Cease’s availability more unlikely.
What will he cost?
Regardless of whether Cease is actually available, the White Sox will demand a hefty return for their young flamethrower. Cease is going to enter his age-28 season next year and despite some backsliding last season, he has shown he can be among the best pitchers in the league, not just the best on a given roster. He has two more years of arbitration before he’ll hit the open market, so the White Sox also don’t have their backs against the wall here, either, especially if they can get good again quickly. It’s more likely that Cease would be traded next winter if 2024 goes poorly, forcing the White Sox to decide if they are actually just a piece or two away from contention or in a need of the rebuild they currently want to avoid.
But we’re not going into next winter, are we? So let’s take a stab at answering the question at the top of this section. My guess is the White Sox wouldn’t even consider a package that doesn’t include at least two or three of the Red Sox’s top prospects, meaning guys like Marcelo Mayer, Ceddanne Rafaela and Miguel Bleis could all be discussed, and that’s probably just where negotiations start. Bottom line: The Red Sox would have to give up a large chunk of the prospect talent they’ve been building of late to get Cease to change the color of his sox.
Aside from the trade cost, the Red Sox would also need to consider Cease’s long-term future. While they might not need to get an extension brewing the second the trade went through like they might if they dealt for Corbin Burnes, if they trade for Cease, the Red Sox would have to start that process in the near future. Otherwise they’d risk giving up a king’s ransom in prospects only to watch him sign somewhere else in two years.
Show me a cool highlight.
Dylan Cease, 98mph Fastball and 81mph Knuckle Curve (home plate views).— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 31, 2023
Hitting is hard. pic.twitter.com/esqgYkNagU
If Yordan Álvarez has trouble hitting Cease, then what chance does anyone else have?
Smash or pass?
If we were having this discussion a year ago, I would be advising that the Red Sox do whatever it takes to land Cease. You want Marcelo Mayer? Done. Triston Casas? All yours. Unfortunately, as it stands now, I think they should be more cautious but still actively pursuing Cease if the White Sox are actually entertaining offers. Despite the red flags, there are very few guys in the league that have the stuff to reach the heights Cease did in 2022, and with respect to Bello, the Red Sox don’t have anyone close in their system right now. Plus, let’s remember, even in a down year, Cease still would have easily been the best starter on Boston’s roster last year. As he showed in 2021 and 2022, he can be so much more than that as well.