Chris Saleis really good. That’s no secret. Everyone knew that when the White Sox hit the reset button in 2016, they were trading away one of the premier talents the game had to offer. Not only was Sale the best pitcher in the American League, but he was young (27 at the time of the trade) and cost controlled for the next three years. It was a tremendous loss for the Sox, but made easier to swallow by the return of baseball’s top prospect Yoan Moncada, and young fireballer Michael Kopech, along with two more minor leaguers.
Since the trade, Kopech has yet to throw a pitch in the majors, and Yoan Moncada has slashed an underwhelming .223/.312/.398 during his time in the bigs. Moncada also leads the major leagues in strikeouts with 167. Moncada’s slow start has caused many fans to question the necessity of the rebuild and whether the package received for Sale was worth trading away the face of the franchise. The condor-like lefty has since evolved into the best pitcher in baseball. Once in competition with Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw for the title of best in the league, Sale has since pulled away from his counterparts.
Sale’s numbers this year have him in rarified air amongst some of the greatest pitchers of all time. His 0.85 WHIP paces the league, but also puts him in a category with Bob Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cy Young for lowest WHIP in a single season. His 218 strikeouts (his sixth consecutive 200+ strikeout season) lead the league, and have him on pace for his second consecutive 300 strikeout season. Only nine other pitchers in history have joined the 300 club more than once. Finally, Sale paces the league in ERA at 1.98. His dominating season, while nothing new, seems to have finally established Sale as the standalone best pitcher in baseball.
It’s been a difficult pill to swallow for Sox fans, as the most exciting parts of the rebuild continue to ride the bus in the minor leagues while the losses continue to pile up on the major league level. Couple that with the fact that the Sale’s historic season has the Red Sox on a historic win pace. Their 85 wins through August 12th have them on pace for a record breaking 115 win season. It’s understandable why this all may be too much to take for fans of a team that hasn’t won 85 games since 2012, and hasn’t surpassed the 85 win mark since 2010. But it’s important for fans to remember why despite the year he’s putting together, the team is still better off without the best pitcher in baseball.
Prior to the Sale mega-deal in 2016, the White Sox were a listless organization floating in the wind. Attempting to recapture the lightning in a bottle that had led to their championship in 2005. They did this through patchwork acquisitions of washed up players (Ken Griffey Jr, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Adam LaRoche, Adam Dunn, the list goes on). They were rewarded with a payoff of one playoff appearance in the 11 years following the World Series leading up the beginning of the rebuild. Yes, they had the American League’s best pitcher that we now see has turned into baseball’s best pitcher, and yes, they had some nice pieces in Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana and Jose Abreu. But despite a decent supporting cast for the strong core, the wins had not been piling up. It began to feel as though the team was forcing a square peg into a round hole every time they added a player who had enjoyed his best years long ago.
So why not continue trying? They had the core pieces in place and under control, the bullpen was a relative strength. Maybe this time they were actually a good free agent signing or two away from contention. The minor leagues remained barren, but they had operated without a minor league system for years! Perhaps if rather than trading Sale, they had gone all out in that year’s free agent market and signed a 30 year old Yoenis Cespedes to a $110 million dollar contract, or signed a 35 year old Jose Bautista to an $18 million dollar deal. Or they could have been savvy and signed a versatile veteran like 31Ian Desmond to a $60 million dollar contract, he was coming off a career year after all. While any of those players with the exception of Bautista may have helped improve a team that had won only 78 games the year prior despite starting 23-10, none of them would have pushed the team over the proverbial hump that had kept them out of the playoffs since 2008. Many fans, who recently have decided to don their finest rose colored glasses, seem to feel that the approach the Sox had employed prior to trading Sale was working, and more importantly, the approach they have committed to now is in fact not working. All of this despite the fact that at the time, Sox Nation celebrated the deal and what it signified.
But if you look at the American League East standings, a cautionary tale of what happens when you miss your chance to get ahead on a rebuild rests at the bottom of the division with a league worst 35-84 record. That team is the Baltimore Orioles, who for years were resistant to the idea of rebuilding, and maintained that they could contend with a roster built around a generational talent in Manny Machado. They even came into this year with eyes on competing for the best division in baseball. Well, Manny Machado is a Los Angeles Dodger, Zach Britton is a New York Yankee, they are saddled with one of the worst contracts in baseball history in Chris Davis, who is owed $23 million dollars a year through 2023, while hitting .158 with 148 strikeouts in his age 32 season. Even after their busy deadline where they hit the panic rebuild button, their farm system ranks only 20th in the league according to Bleacher Report. Not an enviable position to be in, but it’s likely the same one the White Sox would be in had they not hit the reset button when they did, and continued to sign square pegs for round holes.
The league is full of teams who missed their golden opportunity to rebuild, and are now paying for it dearly. The Royals are another team who missed their selling window, and the Mets will soon be a team that tried to make it work for too long, after missing their opportunity to part with key members of a rotation that saw them reach a World Series only three years ago. The Tigers have just begun a long and winding rebuild that has no set date for ending either. So while the second full season of major league futility for the White Sox has been exacerbated by Sale’s all time season, some key injuries in the promising minor league system, and what appears to be another magical North Side season, it’s important fans don’t lose sight of the fact that the White Sox are still in a better position than they were two years ago. Even as painful as the position they are in may be.
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