There’s a very good argument to be made that in the year and a half since the White Sox traded Chris Sale, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball.
There are other contenders for that title, of course (Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander immediately come to mind), but look what Sale has done since joining up with the Boston Red Sox: a 2.52 ERA with 527 strikeouts in 55 starts over the past two seasons. He’s currently the American League’s ERA leader. He leads baseball with a 0.849 WHIP. Last season he threw more innings, 214.1, and struck out more batters, 308, than any other hurler in the game.
That’s the guy the White Sox traded away.
They did it with good reason, of course, to jumpstart a rebuilding effort after several years of win-now mode yielded no winning. But with the Red Sox on the South Side this weekend — Sale won’t pitch against his old mates, he’s on the DL — it again brings that trade to mind. And now, both of the major return pieces are on the White Sox major league roster, allowing an even greater opportunity to look at where this trade stands a year and a half later.
“I’m very hopeful that time will tell,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said when asked about the trade before Thursday’s game. “We traded a great pitcher, and we got some really good looking young players. We’re very, very hopeful that both sides ended up benefitting from the move.
“l think these guys are moving in the right direction, and we’re hopeful they’re going to be able to shine and give us something moving forward in the short term and in the long term.”
The Red Sox made the move, trading away two of baseball’s highest-rated prospects, because they are, as always, in win-now mode. And few upgrades help in a win-now scenario than one of the game’s best pitchers. Well, Sale has certainly helped with that goal of winning now in Boston.
The Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East crown in 2017 before being bumped from the postseason by the eventual-champion Houston Astros. This season, no team is a bigger favorite to win the World Series than the Red Sox, who come into this weekend’s four-game set with 92 wins and a month remaining in the regular season.
Sale, of course, has been a big part of that success. He’s a leading man in the starting rotation of the best team in baseball, and he will be next season, too. If the Red Sox get a championship in one or both of the next two postseasons, then it’s hard to argue the high prospect price they paid to get him wasn’t worth it.
The White Sox side of things is, obviously, vastly more difficult to judge. The trade wasn’t made for the 2017 or 2018 or 2019 seasons but for the seasons down the road, when rebuilding mode yields to contention mode and there’s a perennial playoff team on the South Side. That’s the plan, anyway.
But at least the two main pieces of a package that also included minor league outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe — one of the White Sox representatives at the Futures Game this summer — and minor league pitcher Victor Diaz are now big leaguers. Kopech’s promotion to the majors last week electrified Guaranteed Rate Field, and after that rain-shortened debut he picked up his first big league win in Detroit.
Kopech is eight innings into his major league career, so any judgment at this point is pointless. But the guy really showed something in the minors this season when he bounced back from a rough stretch in the middle of the year to finish his minor league career in incredible fashion, with a 1.84 ERA and a bonkers 59-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Overcoming the struggles was as impressive, if not more so, than the numbers themselves.
“The young man has worked very hard,” Renteria said. “The last seven or eight outings of his minor league season were very, very good. I think it’s transitioned to his last outing for us, which we saw in Detroit. Hopefully he continues to develop, continues to command the zone. It’s electric stuff. Hopefully he’ll just continue to trust himself, which he is doing right now, and just enjoy being here. Know that he’s capable of doing what he’s doing because of this tremendous gift he has.”
Then there’s the heretofore unmentioned Yoan Moncada, who is burdened with the same expectations as Kopech. It’s impossible to say he’s lived up to those expectations in his first full season in the majors, but it’s not fair to judge him on such a scale, either. Moncada has had his flashes of brilliance at the plate this season. But it’s also difficult to mention Moncada’s name without mentioning that he ranks first in baseball in strikeouts and third in baseball in fielding errors.
But it’s a developmental season at the major league level just as it is for all the highly ranked guys still playing in the minors, and Moncada certainly falls into the same group as Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Tim Anderson and others — guys who aren’t yet finished products.
“He’s going to start to improve,” Renteria said. “He’s working very, very hard. He’s 23 years old. I know there are high expectations. Those high expectations always put people in this idea that the numbers have to be really, really good at the major league level. I’m sure they’ll get there at some point. He continues to work on both sides of the game, and he’s improving.”
For those looking to declare a victor in this Sox-Sox swap, unfortunately you’ll have to wait some time. It’s far too early to judge what Kopech and Moncada will become. And we haven’t seen if the Red Sox will win the ultimate prize with Sale on the roster.
But while that might seem to be the same point we were at a year ago, it’s not. Moncada and Kopech are on the White Sox active roster now. The organization might still be in the middle of a waiting game, but there is noticeable progress embodied by those two players just being here.
The Red Sox opted to win now with this deal. The White Sox opted to put “winning now” behind them and look toward the long term, in which both Kopech and Moncada figure to play big roles. Both teams got what they wanted. But the ultimate determination of who wins this trade will be rings.