Boston ace Chris Sale is set to be 34 years old in 2023. He has a career 3.03 ERA and is the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. From 2013 to 2018, Sale never finished worse than fifth in AL Cy Young voting. He’s also pitched only 48.1 innings since the start of 2020 — has fallen victim to several nasty injuries keeping him off the field for the majority of the last three seasons. Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2020 and most of 2021. 2022 saw Sale start on the IL with a rib stress fracture, and after returning for a brief stint, Sale missed the remainder of the season with a broken pinky from a comebacker and later a broken wrist from a bicycle accident.
In Sale’s limited time on the mound over the last three years, he’s shown signs of returning to form, going 5-2 and holding a 3.17 ERA, but it’s been very limited exposure, plus other underlying stats like his 3.54 FIP, 1.303 WHIP, and decreased strikeout rate has raised concern as well. Still, Sale’s potential can’t be understated, and with the Red Sox seemingly going into a rebuild, having allowed stars like Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez, and Nathan Eovaldi to walk away in free agency. Although the Red Sox have made up for some of those losses with the additions of closer Kenley Jansen, former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, and Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida, it’s clear the team isn’t aiming to compete in 2022 the same way it did in years past, and with that, perhaps the trade block is the best way to move Boston forward. Boston’s chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said as much after the team lost Bogaerts to the Padres, telling The Athletic, “I actually think the trade market could be a really good route to adding impact to our club.” The first name on the chopping block could very well be Sale.
Heyman reminds us that Sale has a complete no-trade clause, so should the Red Sox want to ship Sale away, it would have to be to a team that Sale approves of, which in all likelihood would be a contender.
But would a contending team be willing to risk prospects for an aging pitcher who can’t stay healthy? Probably a lot actually. Given the injuries Sale has sustained most recently, it’s easy to assume that he won’t suffer similar ailments in the future. A comebacker that broke his pinky? That’s a fluke. A bike accident? He’ll probably wear wristguards next time. It reminds me of when people considered Keenan Allen an injury-prone receiver after he suffered a lacerated kidney in 2015. Yes, he tore his ACL the following year, but the unfortunate timing of suffering these injuries one right after another convinced several NFL fans that Allen wasn’t a durable commodity. Well, he only missed three games over the course of the next five seasons.
Sale could very well be in a similar boat. Sure, he’s a decade older than Allen was, but with prime age for pitchers continually trending upward, Sale likely still has a few good years left in him. For a team in win-now mode, Sale — who has two more years left on his contract — could be a risky endeavor with a high upside, and if it doesn’t work out, he’ll be gone in two seasons.
With that said, the San Diego Padres are the first team that makes a lot of sense. With the Dodgers losing several key pieces this offseason, there’s never been a hotter iron worth striking in the NL West. They’ve shown a desire to go all-in for a World Series with the additions of Xander Bogaerts and Juan Soto, and have expressed a desire to improve their starting rotation. Although they’ve reportedly been more interested in trading for/signing young arms to long-term deals, Sale is a potential short-term solution to a rotation that currently contains only one lefty — Blake Snell.
The Cardinals and Astros are two other teams that could make a move for Sale. With the loss of Verlander, the Astros will definitely be in the market for a top-tier arm in order to improve their title defense. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, who have a plethora of trade chips that a rebuilding team like the Red Sox would be interested in and just signed their next franchise backstop in Willson Contreras, could be interested in creating their next great battery duo.
A high-end southpaw is difficult to come across nowadays, and Sale has the potential to immediately make any team’s rotation one of the best in the league. However, with his no-trade clause complicating matters, the trade partners are probably limited to big-market contenders. Surely, some team will be willing to take a swing on Sale, and I’d be willing to bet, barring another unlucky injury, that team will be pleasantly surprised.