NBC Sports Washington is taking a look at some of the biggest "What If" questions in Nationals history. Next up is an exploration into an alternate reality in which the Nats shipped a hefty package to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for star pitcher Chris Sale.
“They were always one pitcher away.”
That’s what former Nationals superstar Bryce Harper told his agent, Scott Boras, after Washington inked Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal back in December of 2018, as he recently told Barstool Sports’ Starting 9 podcast.
“They finally got that pitcher…I promise you they are going to win the World Series.”
Harper turned out to be right, of course. Just a few years prior though, it was another superstar southpaw that had the Nats’ attention: Chris Sale.
Just 27 years old at the time and coming off his fifth straight All-Star campaign, Sale had clearly established himself as one of baseball’s elite hurlers. Despite pitching in one of the league’s most hitter-friendly ballparks, Sale consistently ranked near the top of the league in wins, strikeouts and complete games. However, as the Chicago White Sox struggled to win consistently and appeared headed toward a complete rebuild, Sale transformed from elite ace to valuable bargaining chip.
Chicago had no shortage of suitors when it came to Sale, who essentially had three affordable years left on his deal at the time. The Nationals, who like Harper had said may have been “one pitcher away,” were in position to put one of the most compelling deals on the table.
According to reports at the time, Washington appeared willing to part with rising stars like Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles in order to acquire Sale. Even Trea Turner’s name was tossed around in potential trade packages (and possibly could have sealed the deal), but Mike Rizzo and company were unwilling to part with their franchise shortstop.
Sale would have fit right into the Nats rotation, teaming up with eventual Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to form perhaps the most dominant 1-2-3 punch in recent history:
-RHP Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.51 ERA in 2017)
-RHP Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52 ERA)
-LHP Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90 ERA with Red Sox)
-LHP Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96 ERA)
-RHP Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA)
That’s *four* pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 for the entire season. And while Scherzer led the National League in strikeouts with 268, Sale finished with 308 punchouts in 2017 (at the time, the highest total since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both cracked the 300-K mark in 2002).
Sale’s 17 wins in 2017 would have paced Washington as well, replacing two pitchers in the rotation with ERAs over 5.00 (Joe Ross and Edwin Jackson), while slotting in with fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez to provide balance in a righty-dominated rotation—a rotation that could have led the Nationals to a Divisional Round win over the Cubs rather than yet another early postseason exit.
As we all know, the Nationals chose not to include Turner in their proposal to the White Sox, and Sale ended up with the Red Sox for their package of top prospects (headlined by baseball’s then-No. 1 prospect Yoan Moncada). The Nats wisely hung on to Robles, but they did end up making a deal with Chicago after all: Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning were packaged to the White Sox in exchange for outfielder Adam Eaton.
Would Harper have made re-signing with the Nationals a priority if they weren’t still “one pitcher away” when his contract expired? Doesn’t matter though, Washington won its World Series and isn’t stuck with a 30-year-old Sale who’s coming off Tommy John surgery and has well over $100 million coming his way. A healthy Patrick Corbin will do just fine for the Nats.
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