CINCINNATI — There’s a belief in some baseball circles the White Sox should give an imperfect 40-man roster a substantial upgrade by doing the unthinkable — trade Chris Sale.
To be clear, there hasn’t been a rumor, report, not even a hint, that the White Sox would consider a deal for Sale, who not only has pitched at a Hall of Fame level this season and was named to his fourth consecutive All-Star team on Tuesday night, but also possesses one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball.
But given the dearth of big-ticket items available and a glut of potential buyers, the impending July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline and how the White Sox have disappointed in the first half, there’s no question general manager Rick Hahn could easily acquire several young core impact players were he to sell Sale.
Think Herschel Walker goes to Dallas.
As one baseball analyst said Sunday, the White Sox could ask for “the world” in exchange for one of the sport’s elite pitchers. Even that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy Sale’s teammate Jeff Samardzija, who is firm in his belief the White Sox would be hard-pressed to find as talented of a pitcher as the one they already have affordably locked up through 2019.
“It’s practically impossible,” Samardzija said. “I think everybody wants to develop those pitchers and maybe they have great stuff off the mound, on the radar gun, visually it looks good, but you don’t find complete packages like Chris — ever. I think they are a once-in-a-50-year-span-type guy.”
Sale is 8-4 with a 2.72 ERA for a team that has averaged fewer than 3.5 runs per game this season. Coming off a 2014 campaign in which he finished third in the AL Cy Young vote, Sale leads the American League in strikeouts (157), Fielding-Independent Pitching (2.21), WHIP (0.947) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.8).
In the past month, he had a stretch in which he struck out at least 12 batters in five straight games, tying an MLB record set by Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. He also tied Martinez’s all-time mark of eight straight starts with at least 10 strikeouts.
Sale and his tall, wiry frame — “He’s all asses and elbows coming at you,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said Friday — have become the toast of the baseball world and he’s expected to be a strong contender for this year’s AL Cy Young Award.
Sale hasn’t always been this elite, but White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper insists the pitcher was good the moment he landed in Chicago in August 2010.
Cooper believes that Sale, in his fourth season as a starter, has thrived because he not only knows how to physically pace himself through a full season but he has also learned how to work through tough spots.
“A big thing we’re seeing over the years is more maturity, more keeping his emotions and head in check,” Cooper said. “When the control tower is working, he is really good because of the efficiency, his focus, his commitment. When he gets flustered or angry — sometimes somebody gets a hit and he gets pissed — he wants to go to a level that I think loses that efficiency. He’s able now to control his emotions and control his starts and commitment to each pitch.”
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Sale’s appeal is about much more than his incredible stuff.
Not only does he possess a fastball that averages 94 mph, a slider that drops off the face of the Earth and a changeup that baffles hitters, Sale does it all at a reasonable cost.
Sale will earn $6 million this season, $9.15 million in 2016, $12 million in 2017 and the White Sox hold club options for $12.5 million in 2018 and at least $15 million in 2019 after he signed an extension in spring 2013. Those figures pale in comparison to the salaries of fellow All-Stars Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke and countless others, making Sale an extremely valuable commodity in an industry that pulled in $9 billion in gross revenues during the 2014 season.
Currently, the Philadelphia Phillies hope to find a trade partner for starting pitcher Cole Hamels, who is due at least $73.5 million and up to $91.5 million through 2019. At that price, the Phillies should be able to receive two good prospects in return for Hamels, 31.
It’s believed Sale, who is 26, could bring a return of five to six good prospects if the White Sox were to trade him. That kind of infusion of young talent would not only help the White Sox fill several vacancies, it could help them contend well into the future.
But the lofty price tag Sale would command might not make him as easy to trade as one would think.
“It’s a lot more complicated than a normal trade,” said one MLB executive. “How do you get back enough talent to justify it?
“He’s probably the best pitcher in the game, so what’s the price you attach to that? It’s hard when they think about what they can ask for and is a team willing to sort of blow their whole top of the system out?”
“It’s really hard. And you better be right.”
And it’s not just about finding the right return price, either.
Were the White Sox to part with Sale, they’d have to search for another young frontline pitcher. As good as the White Sox have been at developing pitchers, unearthing another true ace isn’t easy or teams wouldn’t spend $210 million for free-agent pitchers.
“It’s too difficult to be able to find somebody that you can count on every five days to bring what he brings to the table,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “There has never been a time when he’s pitched where we thought we didn’t have a better-than-average chance to win that game. You feel really confident when he goes in there just because he’s so reliable and dominant.”
The contract also makes it easier for Hahn to build a team around his ace.
With Sale and pitcher Jose Quintana each affordably signed the next few seasons, Hahn has room in his budget to bring in players from outside. Last winter, Hahn filled vacancies in left field, the bullpen, starting rotation and the middle of the team’s lineup when he signed $139 million worth of free agents and also acquired Samardzija who earns $9.8 million.
The ability to spend helps Hahn make up for a farm system that, aside from infielder Gordon Beckham, hasn’t produced a regular position player in years. While the White Sox are flush with pitching prospects, they still have few position players in the minors who are expected to make an impact in the majors. Trading Sale couldeasily net them one to two premier young players and several other talented prospects.
For his part, Sale isn’t too concerned about being traded.
A native of Lakeland, Fla., Sale has found a home on Chicago’s South Side. Not only is he comfortable with the White Sox, he believes the franchise is headed in the right direction and he wants to steer the ship.
“I don’t think too much on that,” Sale said at a press gathering Monday. “I don’t want to sound too confident, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. That’s just me. I would hate for it to happen, too.”
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Memo to other GMs: Don’t let Hahn’s calm, friendly voice on the other end of the line or the fact he hasn’t hung up the phone after 30 seconds fool you — he’s not trading Sale.
Hahn will always take your call. He even intends to hear what you might have to offer for the lanky left-hander.
But make no mistake — the third-year GM has no plans to deal away a pitcher who has drawn comparisons to Johnson, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this month.
Of course, Hahn would have to take it seriously were a rival GM to make a ridiculous offer.
Were the Boston Red Sox to mention they’d part with catching prospect Blake Swihart and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, as well as additional prospects, Hahn would have to consider it. Or if the Houston Astros suggested they’d start a trade package with shortstop Carlos Correa, well, Hahn might be keen on that, too.
But Hahn — who doesn’t comment on trade talks — merely likes to take inventory of players other teams might be open to trading. Every year, whether it’s near the trade deadline or ahead of the winter meetings, Hahn and the other members of the White Sox front office gather as much intelligence on the trade market as they can. While the main focus is improving the White Sox, Hahn’s not just listening to fulfill his own team’s needs but to take stock of it all in case it could lead to a three-team deal.
“We think it’s important to at least hear the market value of all our players,” Hahn said. “Really at any point where there’s a decent amount of trade activities and other clubs are focused on potential acquisitions. It allows us get a better assessment of whether we’re best served going forward with the individual player or players or if we can turn them into a way to address multiple needs and perhaps be stronger or deeper going forward. Just because we’re picking up the phone and hearing people out doesn’t mean we’re any closer to doing a deal. It just means we’re getting a read from the market as to what the possibilities are.”
Hahn didn’t get into specifics but said he learned through a similar conversation last December about the availability of then-Marlins reliever Dan Jennings — no relation to Miami’s general manager and, now, manager. And it’s that very reason he always tries to answer even though there are times it’s clear Hahn is just humoring the caller on the other end.
“There’s certain individuals that objectively you’d find it distasteful to move,” Hahn said. “But it is part of the responsibility of the position to at least hear out other clubs’ ideas and assess as objectively as you can the market value and what’s in the best interest of the club going forward.”
Put Samardzija in Hahn’s chair and he already knows what he’d do. Here’s a hint: It would result in Sale finishing his career in a White Sox uniform. Though he has only been his teammate for five months, Samardzija believes Sale is the complete package both on and off the field. That’s not something Samardzija takes for granted and he hopes the White Sox don’t, either.
“These guys don’t come around too often and when you have them, you really need to appreciate what they are,” Samardzija said. “(Chris) doesn’t want a lot in return, he doesn’t want publicity, which is amazing. He doesn’t really have any kinks in the armor.
“I wouldn’t even trade him. I would just try to sign him to a 10-year extension. That would be my path for sure.”