BOCA RATON, Fla. -- If ever there’s an opportunity for another general manager to try and pry Chris Sale away from Rick Hahn and the White Sox, it could be now.
Hahn returned to Chicago on Thursday morning after several days of “robust” discussions as the GM meetings at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
In what has become an annual tradition, Hahn continues to tell reporters he would have to be overwhelmed by the return package any time he’s asked about a trade for Sale.
But there’s a growing sense among rival executives that the current state of the White Sox could have Hahn -- who has always maintained no player is untouchable -- in a place where the previously unthinkable is no longer entirely out of the question.
Still, any time an out-of-town reporter asks him about the lanky left-hander’s availability, Hahn has a stock answer prepared that he’s undoubtedly repeated dozens of times.
“Same as it’s been for the last two-and-a-half years,” Hahn said with a laugh. “It’s our job to listen. We are open-minded on all our players. We don’t view anyone as being 'untouchable.' At the same time, we realize we do have a few players on this roster, including Chris Sale, who are absolute premium talents, both from a performance standpoint and what they mean in our clubhouse. You add in the factor of the control of the contract costs on a player like that and we realize how special that combination is. So while we’re doing our due diligence and we’re listening and haven’t closed off any avenues, it would certainly take us needing to be overwhelmed to pull the trigger on something like that because you would be in theory trading away not only something special and important to our success over the next couple of years, but also leaving a hole in the wake.”
The possibility Sale is traded this offseason is highly unlikely.
Though he acknowledged that the probability has increased, one American League executive estimated Thursday the chances of a Sale trade are minuscule.
“I’d say it’s gone from zero percent to somewhere below one percent,” he said.
Let’s not forget the facts.
En route to establishing a franchise-record with 274 strikeouts (it also was an AL-high) in 2015, Sale earned a fourth consecutive All-Star nod. He also has four seasons left (two are club options) on his contract at just under $49 million. By comparison, free agent Zack Greinke could earn up to $30 million annually after this offseason.
“Other than the Sonny Gray’s, you won’t find a better contract for a pitcher,” one executive said.
In just four seasons, Sale has developed into the face of the franchise and one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. And he earns far less on an annual average value than any of the top free agents expect to receive this winter.
But don’t totally rule it out, either.
Though the White Sox have done an admirable job the past 2 1/2 years overhauling their roster, there’s still work to be done. The club has needs at shortstop, third base and catcher -- three of the most difficult spots to fill because of the limited options available in free agency and via trades.
Hahn spoke earlier this week about the desire in the White Sox front office to rebuild at a faster rate than the Houstons and Kansas Citys of the baseball world.
One way to accomplish that would be to deal a big-ticket item like Sale, who could fetch 4-5 talented prospects or perhaps a young, controllable and established player along with several other prospects.
So while one Boston reporter said he would be crazy to entertain trade offers, Hahn offered that he always has to listen just in case his steep price is met.
“You have to consider it because someone may surprise you,” Hahn said. “I don’t think the Dallas Cowboys thought they were going to make the Herschel Walker trade until they had that conversation.”
Few teams boast a farm system or enough talent to absorb the cost of Sale. But one AL executive suggested the Boston Red Sox would be the franchise most capable of acquiring Sale and one Hahn would prefer because of the talent within.
Hahn likely would begin negotiations by aiming incredibly high and asking for a package revolving around shortstop Xander Bogaerts, 22, who produced a .320/.355/.421 slash line with seven home runs and 81 RBIs in his second full season in 2015.
But Boston also has young catcher Blake Swihart, of whom the White Sox are said to be fond. Not only have the Red Sox sought a front-of-the-rotation pitcher since last offseason, they also have a new head of baseball operations in Dave Dombrowski, who has to turn around a 78-84 club that was 14th in the AL with a 4.31 ERA in 2015.
Before he left Florida on Thursday, Dombrowski told the Boston Herald he’s mulling a number of opportunities on the trade market and via free agency that could involve tough decisions.
“At some point, we're going to most likely do something that is painful one way or the other,” Dombroski said. “But if you're trying to get quality talent, you're going to have to do that at some point.”
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While there might be outrage over a trade of Sale -- who is 57-40 with a 2.91 ERA in 196 games (116 starts) -- one National League executive believes it might be an opportune time for the White Sox to continue their retool. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series, Minnesota has improved, Cleveland is loaded with pitching and the Cubs appear to be set for a long and high profile run, which could provide a local distraction.
“This would be a good time with the Cubs in the spotlight,” he said.
Hahn never discusses ongoing negotiations with other teams or free agents and he didn’t veer off course this week. But he also noted the White Sox haven’t closed any doors. Whether or not he could part that could include Sale remains to be seen.
Chances are remote.
“There has been a lot of productive and interesting dialogue,” Hahn said. “Now whether that actually translates into deals or people take it back to their offices and get a little more in depth with some free agents -- that slows down some of the trade market -- I don’t know yet. There certainly has been a real fluid exchange of ideas. We’ll see where it goes.”