This trade for Chris Sale hurts, but it’s the good kind of pain
Playing nine innings while hoping the Red Sox ran any throwback jersey ideas past Chris Sale before trading for him . . .
1. Yeah, it hurts a little, but it’s the good kind of pain, right? To acquire a pitcher of Sale’s appeal and accomplishment, as Dave Dombrowski did Tuesday afternoon, seizing the stage at the Winter Meetings with a mega-deal with the White Sox, it’s going to cost a lot. It should cost a lot. And it did. To be convinced to move Sale, an affordable soon-to-be-28-year-old lefty who has finished in the top five in the AL Cy Young voting the past four seasons, the White Sox had to be presented an offer they could not refuse. Dombrowski, who has arguably made more mega-deals than any baseball executive of his generation, knew it would take a lot, and so he parted with a lot, giving up infielder Yoan Moncada — the consensus top prospect in baseball — and fireballer Michael Kopech, as well as Luis Basabe, and Victor Dias. There’s a lot to sort through in terms of the trade, but the first truth is clear: Never sleep on the possibility of Dombrowski making a major move, even when it seems unlikely. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. And frankly, it’s why they brought him here.
2. So about all that we need to sort though, and that good kind of pain. There’s much to like about this deal, and almost all of it is obvious. Sale is a true prime-of-career ace who gives the Red Sox a hellacious top three in the rotation — it’s conceivable that reigning Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello is their third starter next season. Sale has averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings with a 3.01 ERA over the last four years, and he’s coming off a year in which he pitched a career-high 226 2/3 innings last year and won a career-best 17 games for a subpar White Sox team. Dombrowski acquired him without giving up anything off the big league roster — I wonder if Andrew Benintendi was the name that would have made Dombrowski say no — and the Red Sox are better today than they were during Game 3 of the ALDS in October.
3. But there is stuff about this deal that gives you pause, too. Sale has . . . let’s call them distinctive mechanics, and it would be a pleasant surprise if his next four seasons come close to matching the previous four. It’s possible that the White Sox just traded him at the absolute pinnacle of his value. He’s never pitched in the playoffs, and while Chicago is a big market, the interest in the White Sox doesn’t come close to matching what their cousins-in-hosiery endure here in Boston. His scissor-handed freakout over the White Sox’ retro jerseys was hilarious from afar, but given how many similar promotions the Red Sox have (as they should — the 1975 jerseys they wore last season were spectacular), you have to wonder how he will handle the intensity of opinions here.
4. And as fun as it is to acquire superstars, especially the day after the first snowfall when a big trade makes the new season feel just a little closer, does anyone else feel like Dombrowski’s approach is somewhat, I don’t know, soulless? Team makes star available. Dombrowski pays steep price for star. Big league roster is bolstered in the short-term, at the expense of the long-term. He’s been fairly successful with this approach over the brunt of his career (at least since the fire sale with the Marlins after the ’98 season). But as fun as it is to acquire superstars, there is something more rewarding: When a prospect comes up through the farm system and establishes himself as the next-generation Red Sox cornerstone, like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts have in recent years. I know this: Dombrowski owes Ben Cherington a nice bottle of wine or something for leaving him a stocked and stacked farm system.
5. The concern when Dombrowski was hired in August 2015 was that he would gut the farm system and trade the Red Sox’ young talent for established and pricier stars. He has done those things, but I think in general we have to be relieved that he has held on to most of the truly elite talent. Remember, the White Sox were reputed to have asked for Betts and/or Bogaerts in exchange for Sale last season. The fear, at least over here, was that he would trade Betts (who is now clearly untouchable) and Bogaerts (should be untouchable) not long after he arrived, just to make his mark. He didn’t do that, and he has also held on to Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Rodriguez, Blake Swihart, and other potential stalwarts. I suppose he deserves credit for keeping the cream of a deep crop.
6. But he certainly has traded quality depth, and perhaps more than that. I imagine Moncada’s troubles with the breaking pitch during his abbreviated stint in the majors late last season has a few fans more down on him than they should be. The Robinson Cano comp is not unreasonable. Kopech has a blessed arm, though he’s also checked a few boxes in the knucklehead category already. Basabe and Diaz are a long way away. But consider this: in roughly two years in charge, Dombrowski’s tenure — beyond signing David Price — amounts to one ultimate megadeal: He’s acquired Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, Carson Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Sale for Moncada, Kopech, Anderson Espinosa, Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asauje, Logan Allen, Basabe, Diaz, Travis Shaw, Mauricio Dubon, and Wade Miley. He’s traded three of their top five prospects entering last season, and that list was compiled after the Kimbrel deal.
7. So about Tuesday’s slightly smaller deal: Travis Shaw goes from Boston to Milwaukee and thus from being a poor man’s Brian Daubach to . . . I don’t know, what’s the Brewers equivalent, a poor man’s Greg Brock? Casey McGehee? We know this much: They didn’t just trade the next Cecil Cooper. If this deal comes back to haunt the Red Sox, it won’t be Shaw who stars as the apparition. There’s a better chance of it being Double A infielder Mauricio Dubon, a high-energy 22-year-old shortstop who hit .323 with an .840 OPS between Salem and Portland last summer.
8. Shaw had a dream of a start when he was first called up to the Red Sox in May 2015, hitting 6 homers and slashing .350/.398/.638 through his first 27 games. He finished that rookie season with 13 homers in 248 plate appearances and established himself as a viable big league corner infielder. He enjoyed a similar start to the ’16 season, slashing .329/.400/.573 with 6 homers in 39 games through May 17 while starting most days at third base. But after that date, it seems pitchers figured him out, and he’s yet to figure out what they figured out.
9. So what’s next? There’s got to be a next. The Red Sox have seven starters (Sale, Price, Porcello, Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Clay Buchholz, and Steven Wright). Three of them are lefties, though I suppose Pomeranz could go to the bullpen. Trading Moncada and Shaw thins the depth at third base behind Pablo Sandoval and Brock Holt. They still need another bat — I’m stunned at how much the loss of David Ortiz is being underestimated. And they’ve got luxury-tax threshold concerns to deal with. Fair to say that Tuesday brought the biggest deal of the Red Sox’ offseason. But it can’t be the last deal. Sale makes the rotation championship-caliber. But there is still other work to be done. In other words: Don’t get too attached to your favorite potential Sea Dog.
Watch: Dan Shaughnessy on the Chris Sale trade