This Trade in History: Chris Sale to the Red Sox

Trades

Players

In the first installment of this series, we looked at the Christian Yelich trade, which seemed fair on paper at the time, but turned out disastrously for the Marlins. In the second, we looked at the Josh Donaldson trade, which looked incredibly lopsided on paper (using the numbers we have now), and in fact turned out that way as well. Now let’s take a look at one that may be… fair all around?

Note: Since this site (and our model) didn’t exist when these trades occurred, we may not have access to all the data we currently use, so some of the inputs are not as accurate as they would be today. But let’s try it anyway, just for fun.

—–

On December 6, 2016, the Chicago White Sox traded P Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox for four prospects: IF Yoan Moncada, RHP Michael Kopech, OF Luis Alexander Basabe, and RHP Victor Diaz.

It was quite a bold move – for both teams. At the time, the White Sox were coming off of several seasons of mediocrity – they had tried to compete, but continued to fall short. By the end of the 2016 season, after they finished 4th in the AL Central at 78-84, they realized it was time to rebuild. So they ripped off the Band-Aid, making two stunning deals on back-to-back days, trading high-value veterans for prospects (the other being Adam Eaton to the Nationals on Dec. 7, 2016).

The Red Sox, meanwhile, were back on the upswing. After consecutive last-place finishes in 2014-15, they won the AL East in 2016 with a 93-69 record, only to get swept by Cleveland in the ALDS. They had an exciting offense, led by emerging stars Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, but the rotation (led at the time by Rick Porcello) needed another strong arm. They were clearly in win-now mode, and had an excellent farm from which to deal.

At the time, Sale was one of the top starting pitchers in baseball. For the past five years, he’d been Chicago’s ace, earning all-star berths and finishing in the top six in the AL Cy Young voting in each one. The White Sox did not have to trade him – after all, he had three years remaining on a team-friendly contract. Then again, he was far and away their best trade chip – if they got the right offer for him.

So what would our numbers show if we’d had the model then?

—-

Imagine it’s December, 2016, and we’re looking ahead.

Chris Sale, at age 27, is in his prime. For the past five seasons, he’s averaged about 5 fWAR, and shows no signs of slowing. At this point, then, it’s safe to assume another 5-ish WAR season, but then start adjusting down the projections for the ensuing years of control as he ages closer to 30. He’s been very healthy over the past two years, having pitched over 200 innings in each, so his injury risk at this point is standard for the age and position (although we should acknowledge that some experts think his wild-ish delivery is higher-risk). Below, we’re looking at his age 28-30 seasons going forward (dollar values below in $Ms, back-adjusted for inflation): 

Name

Years

AFV

Salary

Surplus

Low

Median

High

Sale

3.0

168.2

39.5

128.7

115.8

133.2

150.6

His contract is very team-friendly: he’s owed $12M in 2017, $12.5M in 2018, and $15M in 2019. Given his expected high production, that’s an enormous value. So we project him for a surplus of $128.7M, but skew it a little higher due to his status as a star that would be in high demand, resulting in a median estimate of $133.2M.

Clearly it would take quite a haul to get Sale. And as you can see below, it did.

The return package consists of four prospects, whose valuation estimates at this time are (in $Ms; we’ve also adjusted all numbers to 2016-era dollars):

Moncada

104.8

Kopech

28.6

Basabe

3.6

Diaz

0.7

Total

137.7

So it looks like a fair deal – on paper Chicago gets a hair more (137.7 to 133.2), but at this level those are mere rounding errors.

Looking at the individual pieces:

*Moncada is, at this time, considered the #1 prospect in baseball by Fangraphs (who rate him a 70, which is rare); #2 overall in the sport by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline; and #5 by Baseball Prospectus. 

In other words, there is strong consensus that he’ll be a future star, and his stats validate it: at age 21, he put up a 156 WRC+ at High-A, followed by a 152 WRC+ at AA, which earned him a late-season cup of coffee with the big club. There’s some doubt about whether he’ll land at 2B or 3B, but no one doubts that his bat will be elite. You rarely see a prospect with a triple-digit valuation, but this one seems justified.

*Kopech is, at this time, ranked #32 at Baseball America, #10 at MLB Pipeline, and #36 at Baseball Prospectus. Fangraphs rates him a 55 (on the traditional scouting scale of 20-80, where 50 is considered good). All of that suggests he’ll be a future impact arm – most likely as a #2 starter – although Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs does note that comes with risk – he’s had some injury issues and off-field incidents, and his high-octane velo coupled with delivery issues suggests some reliever risk.

*Basabe is rated as a 40 by Fangraphs, but note that this is before they introduced the 40+ category for those prospects who may be a tick higher; indeed, Basabe is ranked #11 on the Chicago farm, at the top of the heap of 40-rated guys, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt as a 40+.

*Diaz is the first mentioned in the “Other Prospects of Note” section, and this is before Longenhagen moved 35+ guys to the main list, so again, we’ll assume that’s where he’d be if that system were in place at this time.

So Chicago’s return for giving up three years of their ace is the (more or less) consensus top prospect in baseball, a future #2 starter, a future 4th outfielder type (maybe) and a lottery-ticket relief prospect. 

Factoring prospect bust risk, GM Rick Hahn can at least figure that they’ll get 6+ years of strong performance from either Moncada or Kopech – possibly both. And given that they’re heading into a rebuild, the timelines for each of those guys line up much better for Chicago’s future than wasting three years of Sale in non-contending years.

On Boston’s side, they’re clearly pulling out all the stops to win a World Series. They already have a strong farm, with MLB-ready talent ready to help the big club, including Andrew Benintendi (who just came up in late 2016) and Rafael Devers (set to debut in 2017), to complement the emerging core of Betts and Bogaerts. Top executives Dave Dombrowski and Mike Hazen know they have to give quality to get quality, and figure they can stomach the loss of Moncada and Kopech to get Sale.

So let’s see what happened.

—–

Chris Sale, fWAR and value produced (in $Ms, per Fangraphs), 2017-2019:

Chris Sale

fWAR

Value

Salary

Surplus Value

2017

7.6

61.0

12.0

49.0

2018

6.2

49.6

12.5

37.1

2019*

3.6

28.7

15.0

13.7

Total

17.4

139.3

39.5

99.8

*We’re only tracking Sale for three years, because that’s the amount of control the White Sox traded away. Similarly, we’re using the 2019 salary numbers from the original contract, not the one Sale signed with Boston in late 2018 to replace it, as that was unknown at the time.

So Sale delivered slightly less than expected in those three years: his projected field value was $168.2M; he delivered $139.3M – not a huge difference, and we should note here that Fangraphs’ measurement of value is slightly different than ours, so it could be just that. 

But his 2019 performance was marred by injury. After missing a few starts to a shoulder issue in 2018, he missed 44 days in late 2019 with an elbow injury – which later required Tommy John surgery. So it’s possible his 2019 numbers were affected by each of those issues. It’s likely that, if healthy, he would have delivered his usual elite numbers.

On a surplus-value basis, he delivered almost $100M – south of his projection of $128.7M, and even less so when market value was factored into his $133.2M estimate. 

Did the Red Sox get what they paid for?

Keep in mind that the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018, and Sale played a big part in that – indeed, that was the main reason for trading for him. Given that they also made the playoffs in 2017 (and intended to again in 2019), it’s reasonable to assume the Red Sox factored in that extra month of service time in their estimates (not to mention the additional value of winning it all) at the time of the trade – it’s a way of measuring the added win value of going to a contender.

So let’s adjust for that by giving him an extra month of performance value per season (but not changing the salary, as players are paid by the league, not the team, each October).

Chris Sale, fWAR and value produced including playoffs (in $Ms, per Fangraphs), 2017-2019:

Chris Sale

fWAR

Value

Salary

Surplus Value

2017

8.7

71.2

12.0

49.0

2018

7.2

57.9

12.5

37.1

2019*

4.2

33.5

15.0

13.7

Total

20.1

162.6

39.5

123.1

With this adjustment, Sale delivered over $162M in field value – very close to the projected field value of $168.2M. On a surplus-value basis, he delivered over $123M – again, fairly close to his projection of $128.7M, and not far off of the market-value-adjusted $133.2M estimate. So by this measure, the Red Sox got pretty close to what they paid for him.

What about the return for the White Sox?

Let’s start with the lead piece, Moncada. Note that we’re calculating the 6+ years of control they expected to receive from him once he made the majors, which includes a partial entry-level year in 2017 and six full years from 2018-23, the latter two for which we’re using projections:

Yoan Moncada

fWAR

Value

Salary

Surplus Value

2017

1.1

9.0

0.55

8.45

2018

2.0

16.1

0.55

15.55

2019

5.6

44.5

0.56

43.9

2020^

4.2

33.4

0.57

32.8

2021

4.5

36.1

9.0

27.1

2022*

3.8

30.4

14.4

16.0

2023*

3.8

30.4

21.6

8.8

Total

25

200.0

47.0

153.0

^2020 Covid-shortened numbers are adjusted to a full-year basis for consistency’s sake.

*2022-23 are using 2022 Steamer projections.

Note also that, for the salary column, we’re estimating what Moncada would have received had he gone through the normal arbitration process instead of signing an extension.

As you can see, after 2023, Moncada alone figures to deliver more value than Sale – not by a huge amount, but enough to make the trade justifiable if it had been a 1-for1 deal. 

Of course, the difference here is that we’re showing the certainty of what he became, notwithstanding the uncertainty he had as a prospect. Nonetheless, his prospect estimate of $104.8M at the time of the trade looks very reasonable – a tad conservative, if anything. And that’s even more remarkable when you consider that Moncada is not really a superstar – compared to the stratospheric expectations of him at the time of the trade, he’s been a bit disappointing, actually. Yet even those good-not-great numbers are enough to fully exceed the value of three years of Sale (even after his playoff run!).

And that’s not all. Let’s look at Kopech:

Michael Kopech

fWAR

Value

Salary

Surplus Value

2018

-0.1

-0.4

.55

-0.95

2019-20

2021

1.7

13.5

.57

12.9

2022-25

52.5

21.5

31.0

Total

65.6

22.6

43.0

This one is trickier, because Kopech is still a work in progress. It’s also not clear whether he’ll remain in the bullpen going forward or convert to a starter (as the White Sox recently suggested). The team kept him on an innings limit in 2021 because he hadn’t pitched since 2018, so it’s not a stretch to think he could make the transition to the rotation once he’s fully ramped up. On the other hand, he was a highly effective weapon out of the bullpen in 2021, so they might be better off keeping him there. 

In any case, we’ve projected his 2022-25 numbers assuming he remains a reliever, since that’s all we have to work with. He could very well exceed those projections if indeed he transitions to a starting role, in which case our numbers here will look light.

But for the purposes of this analysis, it’s almost moot, since he’s already delivered about $12M in surplus value and, with four more years of control ahead, figures to deliver at least another $31M. And that’s with baking in the injury risk. Of course, they could also trade him for an estimated $31M in value and realize the rest that way. Either way, it looks like he’ll exceed the estimate of $28.6M at the time of the trade.

As for the other two pieces: Basabe never made the White Sox at the MLB level, was DFA’d after he ran out of options, bounced around a bit, has returned to the Chicago roster on a minor-league deal, and now has a trade value of 0.1. Diaz busted, and is now out of baseball. So that’s a zero.

Summary

Now let’s look at the big picture:

Red Sox got (including post-season value):

Player

Expected surplus value

Actual surplus value delivered

Gap

Sale

133.2

123.1

-10.1

White Sox got:

Player

Expected surplus value

Actual surplus value delivered/

expected

Gap

Moncada

104.8

153.0

+48.2

Kopech

28.6

43.0

+14.4

Basabe

3.6

0.1

-3.5

Diaz

0.7

0

-0.7

Total

137.7

196.1

+58.4

Note that we could include the post-season contributions of both Moncada and Kopech, given that the White Sox made the playoffs in both 2020 and 2021, to align it with the way we’re calculating Sale. But that’s probably a stretch, because you can’t really assume that Hahn expected his team to make the 2020 playoffs when he made the trade in December 2016, four years earlier. Too many random things can happen in intervening years. So we’re sticking to the script there.

Even with that in mind, on paper, Chicago is the “winner” of this trade. On a field-value basis, Boston received $162.6M in value; Chicago figures to land at around $252M, a full $90M ahead.

On a surplus-value basis, which is what most trades are based on, Boston received $123.1M in value; Chicago figures to get $196.1M, so they’re ahead by $73M.

Sale delivered slightly less than expected; Moncada and Kopech are delivering a bit more. 

Despite all that, this one feels relatively fair. And that’s because Sale helped Boston win a World Series – that, after all, is the end goal of playing the game, and he achieved it. As much as we like numbers, we’ll be the first to admit there’s no way to quantify the value of that championship.

Key takeaways

Sometimes, you’ve got to go for it. Dave Dombrowski did that, and it paid off.

Other times, you’ve got to recognize that it’s time to cut bait and rebuild. Rick Hahn did that, and it looks like that move, too, is paying off. Chicago traded certainty, in the form of three years of control of a great player, for uncertainty, in the form of 12 years of control of two high-probability good players.

It’s also interesting that both of the top prospects in this trade seem to be meeting or exceeding expectations, while the two lower-end lottery tickets delivered nothing. That fits with what studies have shown – most of the time, top prospects turn into major-leaguers, and quite often, they become stars. Most of the lower-rated guys do not.

In this trade, it seems, both teams got what they wanted. And that’s a good thing.

About the Author

John Bitzer

John Bitzer

Founder and editor of baseballtradevalues.com
8 Comments
  1. DJ dajuba

    I really enjoyed reading this and passed it on to a few friends. Thank you

  2. Steven Gawrys

    Great article! The White Sox clearly won this trade. The Sox won the WS in 18, but I had a serious issue with Dombrowski bc I love to project out further than 6 minutes.

  3. Kyler Kelton

    Your analysis has inspired me to do some digging on some older trades that shaped the roster of the 21 Braves. The Dec 2014 Justin Upton trade where the Braves acquired Max Fried and the famous Dec 2015 trade where the Braves got Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson for Shelby Miller are two that stand out to me. Keep up the good work!

    • John Bitzer

      Yeah, those are both good ones. I’m thinking about the Shelby Miller deal as a possible one for the future. Thanks for the feedback.

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