By Cee Angi-
(CBS) The best things at US Cellular Field, in no particular order: Helmet nachos, expanded craft beer selections, absurdly cheap tickets and Chris Sale.
After trading Edwin Jackson in July 2011 and deciding not to re-sign free agent Mark Buehrle, the White Sox needed at least one more starter for 2012. Instead of seeking an expensive veteran, the Sox decided to move Sale from the bullpen to the rotation.
It was a decision that had its critics: Sale was one of the team’s best relievers in 2011, with 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine in 71 innings pitched, and his high-velocity fastball and nasty slider combination seemed like a better fit for the vacant closer role instead. Sale’s lanky build and wonky mechanics made him a perceived injury risk, and many thought that increasing his innings pitched by roughly 184 percent in a single season would blow out his arm and end his career.
The critics have been mostly silenced as Sale has emerged as the team’s ace, growing from reliever with good peripherals to one of the best starters in the majors. In his first season as a starter, Sale’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR – how many additional wins a player contributes to a team compared to a hypothetical player of Triple-A veteran/waiver-wire quality), was 5.9, the highest of any player on the team since 2008 (John Danks.)
Last season wasn’t a fluke and Sale has been even better this season than last. While his win-loss record (6-9) doesn’t tell the truth about how well he has pitched, his ERA+ (155), a pitching statistic that adjusts a pitcher’s earned run average to ballpark factors, is the best in the majors.
In March, the White Sox announced that they reached an agreement with Sale for a five-year extension that guarantees the lefty $32.5 million through 2019. Even though the deal includes an escalator (which is based on performance and a Cy Young win) that could increase the total value of the contract to $60 million over seven years, it’s one of the most team-friendly contracts for an elite pitcher in an era where aces are getting ridiculously rich.
When the Sox inked that deal, however, the organization seemed to be on a different trajectory. The Sox were supposed to compete this season, and the next one, and the one after that, and Sale would be the constant every fifth day – the new face of the franchise. But entering Thursday’s game, the Sox are now 39-59, 16 games out of first in the Central, and while there might have been hope a month ago, that illusion has died hard.
The Sox are in desperate need of a rebuild if they want to regain competitiveness, and given present limitations on the draft, international signings, and free agency, the best way to jumpstart a rebuilding is by trading current players, even those that are assets now, even those that will be painful to part with. Until cloning humans becomes legal, it’s the only way a team can turn one player into three or four players.
General manager Rick Hahn said last month that they would entertain offers before the trading deadline for any players on their roster except for Sale and Paul Konerko. Since then, Matt Thornton was traded to the Boston Red Sox for minor-league outfielder Brandon Jacobs, and it’s rumored that other teams have shown an interest in Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Alexei Ramirez, Jesse Crain, and Addison Reed. And even though Hahn said Sale is not available, he has undoubtedly received phone calls to see if his prize lefty is now available.
Sale could be the focal point of the rebuild but he could also provide the most value of any player on the roster if he’s traded. The 39-59 record is ugly, but given the state of the farm system, it stands to get worse in the next few seasons. Keeping Sale means that he could potentially throw 500-plus innings for a team that can’t compete, squandering his best stuff when it doesn’t matter — and he could also get hurt. This year has been proof for the Sox that elite pitching can’t win without run support, and it’s likely that just becomes clearer if he stays.
When Matt Garza was traded to the Texas Rangers earlier this week, the Cubs received three players, prospects Mike Olt and C.J. Edwards, rookie Justin Grimm, as well as the promise of one or two players to be named later.Third baseman Olt was ranked as the No. 22 prospect in all of baseball entering this season by Baseball America, Edwards has a 1.83 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 93.1 innings in Single-A ball and has yet to allow a home run, and even though Grimm has struggled in his 17 starts in the majors this season, there’s still hope that he will develop.
The Garza trade illustrates what teams may be willing to give up for good pitching at the trading deadline, and the Sox could expect a similar return for Peavy if he’s healthy. But the return that Sale would bring in terms of talent could be exponentially higher.
Teams would jump at the opportunity to get a 24-year-old ace who is under contract, and while it’s difficult to speculate on exact returns, it’s reasonable to think that Sale could net four prospects like Mat Latos did in 2011 when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds from the San Diego Padres. But Sale has been better than Latos, and given that he comes with a team-friendly contract through 2019, it seems reasonable to speculate that he could bring as large a return as that netted by the Rangers when they dealt Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to the Atlanta Braves for Beau Jones, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
There’s no guarantee that all prospects become major-league stars, but since the Sox have an empty farm system, having a deeper pool of candidates would be a benefit in itself.
While trading Sale is a decision that makes sense for the future, it’s an unpopular one that would leave a painful void on the team’s roster, especially given the absence of the other players rumored to be traded.
Whether the trade happens now or during the offseason, at least this is true: We’ll still have the helmet nachos, craft beer selections, and absurdly cheap tickets. And though we won’t have Sale anymore, we may get something we don’t have now — a team with a future.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.