One of the more bizarre chapters of recent player behavior and discipline could have significant ramifications on the July trade market. Last Saturday, White Sox ace Chris Sale was scratched from his start and sent home by the team for cutting up the throwback jerseys the Sox were supposed to wear in that day's game against the Tigers—yes, really. On Sunday, the team announced that he had been suspended for five days, and now the question is whether he'll be dealt in a blockbuster trade before he wears a uniform of any kind for the Pale Hose.
Initially, Sale was reported to have been scratched due to what White Sox senior vice president/general manager Rick Hahn described in a press release as "a clubhouse incident ... non-physical in nature" that was "under further investigation by the club." Within a couple of hours, FanRag Sports' Tommy Stokke reported via Twitter, "Sale blowup was because he didn't want to wear throwbacks, so he cut the jerseys up so no one could wear them." Indeed, during batting practice, Sale took a knife to the collared, navy blue 1976 throwbacks—a promotion that had been on the calendar all season—because he felt they were uncomfortable and that he and his teammates were being forced to wear them because, in Sale's view, as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted, "PR and jersey sales were more important than winning." An undisclosed number of jerseys were destroyed, enough to prevent the team from wearing them.
The club sent Sale home from U.S. Cellular Field and instead donned its 1983 throwbacks for the game against the Tigers, with manager Robin Ventura calling upon reliever Matt Albers to make his first start since 2008. Albers lasted two innings in a game that was interrupted by rain three times, suspended in the eighth inning and ultimately won on Sunday by the Sox on a walk-off hit by Adam Eaton before the two teams' regularly scheduled game, which Chicago also won on a walk-off hit, this time by Melky Cabrera. Before the action resumed on Sunday, the team issued another statement announcing Sale's five-day suspension through Wednesday "for violating team rules, for insubordination and for destroying team equipment. While we all appreciate Chris' talent and passion, there is a correct way and an incorrect way to express concerns about team rules and organizational expectations."
This isn't the 27-year-old Sale's first high-profile blowup of the season. In March, amid the clash between designated hitter/first baseman Adam LaRoche and Chicago's brass over the amount of time that LaRoche's 14-year-old son Drake could spend with the team—which resulted in the elder LaRoche's sudden retirement and forfeiture of a $13 million salary—Sale hung the LaRoches' jerseys in his locker and verbally confronted team president Kenny Williams. He then told reporters, "We got bald-faced lied to by someone we were supposed to trust," referring to Williams, adding, "This isn't us rebelling against rules, it's us rebelling against BS." More recently, Sale was involved in a flap between the White Sox and Mariners over a refusal to tip Seattle’s visiting clubhouse manager.
Sale's latest incident comes at a critical time for Chicago. After three straight sub-.500 seasons, the White Sox bolted to a 23–10 start this season, building a six-game AL Central lead through May 9. Since then, however, they have the AL's second-worst record at 25–40; Sunday's pair of wins ended a 1–8 skid. At 48–50, Chicago is 8 1/2 games behind the Indians in the AL Central race and 6 1/2 back in the wild-card hunt, with seven teams in front. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds estimate the Sox' chances at a postseason berth at 4.2%, and on Thursday, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported that the club would be sellers before the Aug. 1 nonwaiver trade deadline.
Even given Sale’s suspension and apparent unhappiness with the team, the White Sox don’t have to trade him, because he’s on one of the team-friendliest deals in the sport. In March 2013, he signed a five-year, $32.5 million extension that runs through next season. Sale is making $9.15 million this year, with $12 million due in '17 and then club options of $12.5 million in '18 and $15 million in '19; each of those options comes with a $1 million buyout. Sale's latter option has already grown from $13.5 million because he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting in '14, and it can increase to $16 million if he wins the award anytime through the next three seasons.
That honor could come as soon as this year. Sale started this month's All-Star Game, his fifth straight invitation, and boasts an AL-high 14 wins, as well as a 3.18 ERA. But after leading the league in strikeouts last season with 274 and in strikeout rate in each of the past two years (with 10.8 and 11.8 per nine, respectively), he’s whiffing a career-low 8.7 per nine and allowing a career-high 1.2 homers per nine; his 3.70 FIP is nearly a full run higher than last year’s AL-best 2.73 mark. The falling strikeout rate has been part of a conscious stylistic change on his part. He’s not throwing as hard—his average fastball velocity is down from 95.6 mph last year to 93.9 this year, according to Brooks Baseball—and he’s trying to induce contact earlier in counts, though his average pitches per plate appearance dropped more from 2014 to '15 (from 4.01 to 3.88) than from '15 to '16 (3.82). He began the year going 9–0 with a 1.58 ERA in his first nine starts, but in 10 turns since then, he’s been touched for a 4.87 ERA, yielding 1.7 homers per nine. He gave up a season-high eight runs to the Braves on July 8, his last start before the break, but followed it up in his first post-break start on July 18 by throwing eight innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Mariners.
If Sale is indeed for sale, he instantly becomes the top player on the trade market. Last year, aces David Price, Cole Hamels and and Johnny Cueto were dealt in July, but no big guns are up for grabs this summer, with teams instead forced to squint at hurlers who are either injury-prone, struggling or both—a pool that includes the Athletics' Rich Hill, the Pirates’ Francisco Liriano, the Padres' Andrew Cashner, the Rays' Matt Moore and Chris Archer, the Twins' Ervin Santana and more. Teams are reportedly asking for kings’ ransoms on those hurlers. On July 15 the Red Sox acquired the oft-injured Drew Pomeranz, who had just passed the 100-inning mark for the first time in parts of six major league seasons, from the Padres in exchange for 18-year-old live arm Anderson Espinoza, who was recently ranked 15th on Baseball America’s midseason Top 100 Prospects list.
Sale will require much, much more than that in return. According to FanRag’s Jon Heyman, the White Sox are reportedly asking for “five top prospects,” with one rival general manager saying, “I think they have no interest in moving him unless it’s a no-brainer deal.”
That hasn’t stopped opposing GMs from calling. Here's a breakdown of five potential suitors, presented in alphabetical order:
Boston Red Sox
Even with Price and the just-acquired Pomeranz, Boston's staff is still underperforming. The Red Sox almost certainly wouldn’t move their No. 1 prospect, second baseman Yoan Moncada, but they would probably have to include 21-year-old Double A outfielder Andrew Benintendi (ninth on BA’s recent list) and/or 19-year-old Class A infielder Rafael Devers (No. 41) in order to get Sale.
They just lost southpaw and No. 3 starter Wei-Yin Chen to the disabled list (retroactive to Thursday) because of a sore elbow, so there is a need in their rotation as they chase an unexpected postseason berth. While it does have several young regulars under club control that might be attractive, Miami probably don’t have the prospects to make a move, a problem shared by the Blue Jays, Orioles and Tigers.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Without ace Clayton Kershaw, whose season may be over because of a back injury, the Dodgers need a stud atop their rotation. They certainly have the minor league depth to deal for Sale, and while they have previously resisted calls to move 19-year-old lefty phenom Julio Urias (as was the case when it came to their pursuit of Hamels last summer), the New York Post’s Joel Sherman reports that they would be wiling to include him in a Sale deal.
New York Yankees
Given Monday’s trade of Aroldis Chapman, it’s not out of the question that the Yankees could get involved in the Sale sweepstakes. They could build a deal around either Gleyber Torres, who is coming over from Chicago in the Chapman deal, or their own Jorge Mateo, two Class A shortstops who made BA’s list at Nos. 27 and 19, respectively. New York's starting pitching is woefully thin, with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia the team's only starters preventing runs at a better-than-average clip. Add Sale to that, and even if they fell short in this year’s AL wild-card race, the Yankees would have a leg up heading into a winter market that will be particularly bereft of high-quality starting pitching.
The Rangers reportedly won’t deal rookie outfielder Nomar Mazara in a Sale trade, but it has discussed including slugging third baseman Joey Gallo and middle infielder Jurickson Profar—formerly the game’s top prospect before a shoulder injury wiped out his last two years—in such a package; both are blocked in Texas at their natural positions, by Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus, respectively.
If the White Sox don’t move Sale, they could be open to trading Jose Quintana, their other 27-year-old lefty. Quintana has a 2.97 ERA and 3.46 FIP, and he’s under control through 2020 on a similarly team-friendly deal: $5.4 million this year, with guaranteed salaries of $7 million ('17), $8.85 million ('18) and then two club options for $10.5 million ('19 and '20) with $1 million buyouts.
If Chicago moves either pitcher and initiates a full-on rebuild, third baseman Todd Frazier and closer David Robertson would also be desirable to contenders; the former has one more year of arbitration eligibility, the latter two more seasons under contract at a total of $25 million. With one week remaining before the trade deadline, the Sox can wait until tempers cool down before assessing whether trading their ace is indeed the best move for the organization. Until they decide definitively, however, the phones on the South Side are unlikely to stop ringing, because nobody can resist a fire sale.