To Right the Sinking Ship, Toronto Might Need a New Sale
When the Blue Jays made their two blockbuster trades last November, the assumption was that between R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson, Toronto had found themselves two top-of-the-rotation starters to lead this team into the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Ten months later, that really couldn’t be less of an accurate statement. The Blue Jays are all but mathematically eliminated from post season play, Josh Johnson made 16 starts that could most generously be classified as more bad than good, and while R.A. Dickey has pitched far better in the second half, he looks far more like an innings-eating number three than the Cy Young Award winner from 2012. Compounding matters was Brandon Morrow’s season-ending forearm injury at the end of May, Ricky Romero’s complete mechanical and mental breakdown, and J.A. Happ’s constant back-and-forth struggle with mediocrity. Of the top six entering the season, only Mark Buehrle has performed as anticipated, with yet another 200-plus inning, 4-ish ERA season seemingly on lock.
From the aforementioned six, Blue Jays fans are probably hoping to only see three on the Opening Day roster next year – Dickey, Buehrle, and Morrow. And that’s probably – hopefully – as the 2/3/4, and not the 1/2/3. Back end starters are easy enough to find, and it’s very likely that next year’s number five is in the organization already. The front office proved this spring with Ricky Romero that guaranteed salary guarantees nothing in terms of roster spots, so while Happ’s 5.2-million probably makes him the early favorite, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, or even Todd Redmond thoroughly outpitch him next spring and sneak into the back of the rotation. Regardless of who fills the spot on March 31st, they’re likely nothing more than a one or two month place holder for top prospect Marcus Stroman, who seems geared to light up Buffalo next April.
That number one spot, however, is – or at least should be – a glaring need in the eyes of General Manager Alex Anthopoulos. According to Bob Elliott, upper management in the Blue Jays organization have already flown to Japan to get a first-hand look at Masahiro Tanaka. Eastern pitchers were long considered a more style than substance, high-risk endeavor by Major League Baseball teams, but Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wei-Yin Chen, and Hyun-Jin Ryu have shown themselves to be more than capable of holding up as starters in the western baseball landscape, and should ease at least some of the concerns over investing heavily in Japan. Jonah Keri of Grantland had an exceptional piece detailing Tanaka, and he pegged the financial investment to likely fall somewhere between Ryu’s 62-million and Darvish’s 110-million, with the upper end more likely given the TV-deal fuelled financial boom baseball has entered. If Rogers Communications has learned from its mistake with Darvish and is ready to cowboy up some (read: a lot of) cash, the Blue Jays should absolutely target Tanaka, with an aggressive posting bid and a six-year deal covering his age 25 to 30 seasons in mind. If they haven’t, they’re not, and those pesky “payroll parameters” enter play this winter, the front office might have to get a tad more creative.
Enter Chris Sale. In case you someday encounter him in an East York backyard barbeque or at the grocery store in Maple Leaf Gardens and you want to strike up a conversation without coming off as socially awkward, here’s a bit of background on the left hander: he went to the same Florida high school as Drew Hutchison (go Dreadnaughts!), and the Blue Jays passed on him in the 2010 draft in order to select Deck McGuire, to whom they gave more money than Sale received from Chicago. Puke. Just make sure you don’t talk about ice boxes. He really doesn’t like them.
Aug 12, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
The more relevant information is tied into his left arm, which has the majesty of two unicorns making love in a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, with a leprechaun lustfully leering on. Sale has three pitches that are of at least plus caliber in his two-seam fastball, slider, and changeup. Each pitch dances to the plate, and despite the outstanding movement, he has proven capable of commanding all three extremely well. Over the past two seasons in which he’s worked out of the rotation, he’s walked just 92 batters in 387.2 innings pitched – good for a walk rate of 2.14 BB/9. That walk rate ranks 21st in baseball (minimum 300 IP) over that timeframe, however, no pitcher ahead of him on the list has a better strikeout rate. Sale has whiffed 9.26 batters per nine innings, and if you filter the list to include only pitchers with a K/9 of at least 8.00 – a loose definition of a “strikeout guy” – Sale jumps to seventh. The pitchers ahead of him: Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, David Price, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, and Homer Bailey. That’s some elite company. The reason he’s been able to rack up the strikeouts is because Sale isn’t just a touch-and-feel, command-and-control guy; his stuff is outstanding. Chris Cwik of Fangraphs wrote an excellent article about Sale’s slider and changeup, but like most pitchers, it all starts with the fastball. His low-to-mid 90’s heater comes from an unfair angle thanks to his unorthodox delivery, and Sale has been clocked at upwards of 98 miles per hour. His 2013 average fastball velocity of 93.3 mph is third among lefty starters in all of baseball, behind only Price and Derek Holland (93.4 mph).
Why Toronto should be interested
Chris Sale possesses a career ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.89/3.15/3.06, and he’s amassed this while pitching in the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. Unlike R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson, who spent their last few pre-trade years in home run suppressing ballparks before moving to the launching pad that is the Rogers Centre, the transition would be much smoother for Sale. With a career 46.7% groundball rate and 0.88 home runs allowed per nine, he’s built for the AL East. In his 482 career innings, he’s been worth an astounding 11.5 WAR, which equates to roughly 4.8 WAR per 200 inning season. That’s ace material.
Sale has established himself as a front of the rotation starter but he’s hardly paid like one, which could be very appealing to a team looking at hefty raises for Buehrle, Dickey, and Jose Reyes, among others. The White Sox signed Sale to five year extension in early March, with a total guaranteed value of 32.5 million. He’ll make 3.5 million in 2014, and 6 million, 9.2 million, and 12 million in the three years after that. Chicago added two club options to the end of his contract, worth 12.5 million in 2018 and 13.5 million in 2019, each with a buyout of 1 million dollars. On the low end, Toronto would be on the hook for four years and 31.7 million. If he continues to pitch the way he’s capable, it’s six years and 57.7 million. Pitchers on the free agent market are going to cost that much if not more, and none possess anywhere near the talent of the White Sox left hander.
The third reason includes a bit more of a grey area, but is noteworthy nonetheless. Sale was drafted and developed by the White Sox, an organization that has demonstrated, year after year, to be ahead of the curve when it comes to preventing injuries. In a study conducted last October by Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs, you can observe that in 2012, White Sox players spent the second fewest total days on the disabled list, with roughly 500. For comparison, the Blue Jays, unsurprisingly, were sixth most with over 1400 days lost, with pitchers accounting for nearly 1200 of those days, the second most in baseball. It was the continuation of a three year trend, as from 2010 through 2012 the White Sox have averaged just 400 days lost to injury – the lowest in baseball, while the Blue Jays are sixth highest, averaging nearly three times as many. While Toronto obviously wouldn’t be acquiring Chicago’s head trainer Herm Schneider, it’s a safe assumption they would allow Sale to maintain roughly the same strength and conditioning routine that he learned with the White Sox. Hell, maybe he could even teach our trainers a thing or two.
In summary: Chris Sale is a top of the rotation starter, he’s cost controlled, and he’s of sound health.
Why Chicago might move him
After reading the one sentence summary I literally just wrote, you’re probably – and rightfully – wondering why on earth the White Sox would be willing to move such a valuable asset. What it all comes down to is timelines. Chicago stands 58-87 at the time of this writing, the third worst record in all of baseball. The only two teams worse than them have one of the best young cores in the Major Leagues (Miami), and one of the best farm systems in all of baseball (Houston). Two of the three teams immediately ahead of them in the standings, the Cubs and Twins, are right there with the Astros – the trio arguably has the top three minor league systems. The only other team in the bottom six without an elite farm system is Milwaukee, and they at least have studs like [the suspended] Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, and Carlos Gomez to build around.
The White Sox are bad now, and in all likelihood are going to be bad for another few years at minimum. Entering the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked their farm as 28th in baseball, and to make matters worse, their number one prospect Courtney Hawkins hit .178/.249/.384 in 103 games. They landed themselves a solid player, Avisail Garcia, in a three-way trade that sent Jake Peavy to Boston, but beyond him and right hander Erik Johnson, there’s simply not a lot there.
Even after the New York and Miami trades stripped Toronto of a wealth of talent, there’s still more than enough here to build a package that might convince the South Siders to ship their ace north. As a warning: it’s probably going to hurt. The first name out of General Manager Rick Hahn’s mouth is going to be Aaron Sanchez, and it has every reason to be. Even with a bit of an up and down season, the right hander is still without a doubt the number one prospect in the system, and most would agree he’s in the top 25 overall. If the Blue Jays tossed in some cash and a couple mid-tier prospects, you might even see Ricky Romero included in the package, as White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is up there with Cardinals staffer Dave Duncan as arguably the top two guys at turning pitching careers around.
If Alex Anthopoulos absolutely refuses to budge on Sanchez, and Hahn doesn’t hang up the phone, I could see a larger package deal being built around Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna, among others. I went into great detail on Stroman’s acumen late last month; in short, he’s a near-ready arm with a very attainable mid-rotation ceiling. My suggestion for the inclusion of Osuna has likely raised a few eyebrows given that he underwent Tommy John surgery only a couple months ago, so allow me to explain. The Blue Jays began scouting Roberto Osuna when he was 14 years old, and followed his career for two years before signing him out of Mexico for 1.5 million in the July 2011 signing period. The man responsible for scouting, evaluating, and getting Osuna under contract was Toronto’s Director of Latin American Operations Marco Paddy, who now works alongside Hahn in the uppermost echelon of Chicago’s front office. If Paddy still believes in Osuna’s future, he could be a tipping point in negotiations.
I will absolutely concede this is a far-fetched scenario, and while many will claim that you can never predict General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ moves, when you reflect on his trades in hindsight, there’s often a clue or two that implies you could have seen it coming had you delved a little deeper. With that in mind, remember that Toronto and Chicago have gotten together on a number of significant transactions over the last few years – the Alex Rios waiver claim, the Sergio Santos-for-Nestor Molina swap, and the three-way deal involving Edwin Jackson that brought Colby Rasmus to Toronto. If you trust Ken Rosenthal’s sources, they even discussed Gordon Beckham during the season. But perhaps the biggest clue of all is that in a report by Shi Davidi that has been corroborated by many others, last winter, prior to the Marlins blockbuster, the Blue Jays and White Sox had the framework for a massive trade in place, before it fell apart because Chicago was able to re-sign Jake Peavy to a team-friendly extension. Peavy is now in Beantown, but it’s unlikely that he was the only name discussed in the potential blockbuster. If nothing else, it suggests that Anthopoulos and Hahn have a comfortable familiarity with one another, and neither would be afraid to pick up the phone and broach the subject of another franchise-altering transaction.