The Washington Nationals’ 2017 rotation could easily be Max Scherzer, a two-time Cy Young-award winner; Stephen Strasburg, a former top overall pick in the draft who is about to enter the first year of a $175 million contract; Tanner Roark, whose career ERA is lower than either of them; Gio Gonzalez, who has twice been an all-star and once won 20 games; and 23-year-old Joe Ross, in perfect position to be nurtured by the rest.
It is a rotation that won the National League East in 2016, when it posted the second-best ERA in the game.
And yet the Nationals should do almost whatever it takes to add Chris Sale via trade.
It’s time. General Manager Mike Rizzo, with enormous help from his scouting and player development staffs, has turned the Nationals into an annual threat to win it all. Over the past five seasons, only St. Louis has won more games than Washington. Over the past five years, the Nationals have three division titles.
What they don’t have is a World Series championship. Or, aiming lower, a trip to the National League Championship Series.
So bring on Sale, the ace lefty of the Chicago White Sox. Overkill, you say? Address a weakness – vacancies at catcher and closer come to mind – before strengthening a strength?
Nonsense. Exactly how long do you want to be good enough to lose in the first round?
This line of thinking comes because two respected sources of baseball news, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and Bob Nightengale of USA Today, both reported this week that the Nationals had inquired about Sale. The specifics are fairly simple. The Nationals have a deep enough farm system from which to trade. Sale is one of the best pitchers in the game, with a contract that makes him particularly attractive.
From the Nationals’ side first. Rizzo, as we’ve explained in the past, has a superb record of trading players. Those he has landed include Wilson Ramos, Trea Turner, Gonzalez, Roark, Ross, Denard Span, Doug Fister, Mark Melancon, on and on. The best player he has given up in such deals? Maybe Billy Burns? Maybe. Maybe it’ll turn out to be Felipe Rivero, dealt to Pittsburgh for Melancon, the closer at the end of 2016. Maybe it’s Derek Norris, who was once an all-star as a catcher. Jerry Blevins?
The point: This is a front office that’s adept at pulling off a trade. It’s not a front office that is accustomed to over-paying.
Now, the inventory. Trades of this magnitude are often built by having the side that is dealing prospects make lists, saying something along the lines of, “You can have two from List A, our top prospects, and two from List B, which is the next tier down.”
List A, for the Nationals, starts with Lucas Giolito, who last year at this time was viewed as the top right-handed pitching prospect in the game; and outfielder Victor Robles, who is just 19 and hasn’t yet reached Class AA. Internally, Robles could be viewed as the replacement for Bryce Harper should Harper leave via free agency following the 2018 season (another topic altogether). But a lot could happen between now and then. Robles could get hurt, not develop as projected, etc.
Even if the Nationals were unwilling to deal both Giolito and Robles – and it says here they should – then there’s still room to make a package. Joe Ross? Sure. But go to the farm system. Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Reynaldo Lopez give the Nationals high-end pitching depth. The system couldn’t absorb the loss of all of them. But a couple? Absolutely. Allow the White Sox, with certain parameters, to assemble their preferred package.
Moreover, if Rizzo believes in his scouting and player development departments – and he does – then he should know they will get him more prospects. Maybe Giolito – or Fedde, or Voth, or someone – develops into the White Sox’s ace for the next six years. Fine. Find the next guy.
On to Sale. His credentials are impeccable. Here are the American League starters who have logged at least 400 innings since 2012 – a low bar – and posted a better ERA than Sale’s 3.04:
That’s right. No one.
There’s more. His strikeout rate, among all pitchers with at least 400 innings over that time, ranks behind only Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Strasburg. His walks and hits per inning pitched mark is behind only Kershaw, Masahiro Tanaka, Madison Bumgarner, Scherzer and Fernandez. He is 27, and though his fastball velocity dipped slightly in 2016, it wasn’t alarming, and he still threw 226-2/3 innings – which was three outs fewer than AL innings leader Justin Verlander.
You get the picture. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game.
Now, the contract. One reason teams are reticent to trade prospects isn’t always because of their upside on the field, but because they essentially amount to cheap labor. For a player’s first three big-league seasons, the club essentially assigns him a salary. For the next three years, he gets raises – sometimes significant raises – through arbitration, when he is paid an amount that’s commensurate with players of similar age, accomplishments and service time.
But because Sale signed a five-year, $32.5-million contract that ends with a $12-million salary in 2017 – and includes team options for 2018 at $12.5 million and 2019 at $13.5 million – he is one of the most affordable elite players in the game. The Nationals would essentially be getting Max Scherzer performance for Gio Gonzalez money.
So line up a playoff rotation: Scherzer, Sale, Strasburg, Roark. Say Strasburg gets hurt. Scherzer, Sale, Roark, Gonzalez.
“Imagine that in the playoffs,” one executive said Wednesday. “And Sale being there would completely take the pressure off Strasburg.”
Do the Nationals need to trade for Chris Sale? Nope. They won the division and were a couple of innings away from (finally) advancing to the NLCS without him.
But the object is to win the World Series. And emptying the farm for Sale inarguably gets the Nationals closer to that goal. Not just next year. But for the next three years.