Pulling away from Sale deal a test of discipline
Nationals reach breaking point, pivot to other players
OXON HILL, MD. | The argument Boston Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski made for acquiring pitcher Chris Sale went like this: We are trying to win now, and we have prospect depth, so why not roll some of it out when one of the game’s best pitchers came available?
That’s the same argument the Washington Nationals would have made if they had traded for Sale, a left-handed starter who makes annual appearances at the All-Star Game and in Cy Young voting. Washington has prospects. Its general manager pushed aside a personal reticence that accompanies the idea of trading high-end prospects. Through Monday night and into Tuesday morning, the Nationals worked to pull-in Sale, attempting to complete informal talks that began weeks ago then kicked up in pace during the Winter Meetings at National Harbor.
They reached a breaking point in asking price, then pulled away. The Red Sox went forth with a massive package topped by infielder Yoan Moncada, the top prospect in baseball, pitcher Michael Kopech, who has thrown a baseball 105 mph, and two other touted prospects. Plus, the Red Sox were putting aside the $31.5 million signing bonus (plus more money) they gave Moncada in 2015.
“We felt we reached as far as we were going to reach for the trade, and we fell short,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Monday and Tuesday were both tests of discipline for Rizzo. The San Francisco Giants offered closer Mark Melancon more money and included a no-trade close. He signed with them instead of returning to the Nationals. In their pursuit of Sale, the Nationals were reportedly unwilling to include center fielder Trea Turner in the deal. Rizzo did not specify the tipping point, but that’s a likely one. Moving the flexible Turner after his dynamic half season just creates more holes on the roster, undermining the boost Sale would provide.
Rizzo did agree with Dombrowski on one point: A pitcher the ilk of Sale — who is a five-time all-star and the second-best left-handed pitcher in baseball — is a rare commodity on the trade market. The Red Sox did not arrive at the Winter Meetings with a focus on starting pitching. It was more that they were notified Dec. 2 in a phone call that Sale was available in a trade, so they began their chase to add to a staff that has two pitchers who have won a Cy Young Award. The Nationals were after luxury in the same manner, as opposed to tracking need.
Beyond his standard numbers, Sale would have given Washington tremendous impact in its pursuit to move forward in the playoffs. First, he would be able to switch leagues, jettisoning the designated hitter for an opposing pitcher in the lineup. Second, he would be key for the Nationals to fight left-hand heavy foes in the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers. In the last three years, left-handers have 77 hits against Sale. He has struck out 138 of them. Last, anyone in the National League or beyond who wants to unseat the juggernaut Chicago Cubs are likely to need a non-traditional route to catch up.
“I really thought for sure he was going to end up in Washington,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “I really did. We dodged a bullet.”
But by dinner time for the second consecutive day, the Nationals had lost out in their chase of a player. First, Melancon, who was much more of a roster need than Sale. Then, Sale, smashing daydreams of a rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Sale for at least the next three seasons.
“We put a lot of effort into it and thought we made a good valiant effort at acquiring a really good pitcher and we fell short,” Rizzo said. “We feel good about the players we kept in not doing a Sale deal, but obviously a great pitcher went over to the Red Sox.”
The Nationals now pivot toward Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, among other outfielders, and a closer. A move that would solve both issues could involve acquiring Kansas City outfielder Lorenzo Cain and closer Wade Davis. The options are vast.
“We have a Plan A through Plan Z,” Rizzo said.
They are at least onto Plan C.
The Chicago White Sox traded all-star pitcher Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.