The Braves Shouldn't Be the Team to Break the Prospect Bank for Chris Sale

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 19, 2016

The Braves are right to want Chris Sale. But to actually trade for him would be too risky.
The Braves are right to want Chris Sale. But to actually trade for him would be too risky.Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves seem to have a Chris Sale obsession. I say we stage an intervention before it gets any worse.

Who's with me?

OK, maybe some concessions are in order first. The Braves and Sale are indeed a match made in hot stove heaven from a strictly on-paper perspective. Veteran signees R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon will boost a starting rotation that posted a 4.87 ERA in 2016—but not as much as Sale would.

The lefty ace, currently of the Chicago White Sox, has a 3.04 ERA since 2012 and has finished in the top five of the American League Cy Young voting every year since 2013. Did you know only the best pitchers can do things like that? It's true.

Sale, 27, isn't the only ace trade chip on Atlanta's radar. According to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Braves are also eyeing Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer and Oakland A's right-hander Sonny Gray.

Sale, however, is their "focus." And if this report from ESPN.com's Buster Olney is any indication, said focus is part of a real effort to do something:

It's possible this is just a PR smokescreen. With back-to-back 90-loss seasons (95 in 2015 and 93 in 2016, to be exact) in their wake and a new ballpark on the horizon for 2017, the Braves may be leaking these interests to generate some goodwill among their fans.

After all, going through with a blockbuster trade for an ace would be quite the departure from what was being said earlier in November.

“You don’t buy No. 1 starters," Braves general manager John Coppolella said, via O'Brien. "You grow them. You draft them, you develop them. For us, it’s not efficient for us to go out and buy a No. 1 starter. Unless something drastically changes, you won’t see us going after a No. 1 starter.”

Buying a No. 1 starter on this winter's free-agent market is basically impossible. Rich Hill, 36, is the best option there is, and his age and durability issues make it tough to stick the No. 1 label on him.

Chris Sale's talent and contract make him a hot trade chip.
Chris Sale's talent and contract make him a hot trade chip.Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

As such, the only way a team can snag a No. 1 starter this winter is on the trade market.

Sale is the crown jewel of said market. And not just because of his talent. His contract controls him through 2019 at a total of $39.5 million. 

When Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs crunched the numbers, he put Sale's surplus value on top of that at $84.5 million. Per other numbers crunched by Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli at The Point of Pittsburgh, that makes Sale worth at least a top-10 hitting or pitching prospect plus a little extra.

But in this winter's market, that's likely just the starting point in trade negotiations. The lack of options on the open market and Sale's combination of name value, on-field value and surplus value puts the White Sox in a position to demand several of a team's best prospects.

For what it's worth, the Braves are among the few teams that can do a trade like that.

Dansby Swanson should be untouchable in trade talks.
Dansby Swanson should be untouchable in trade talks.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Law of ESPN.com had their farm system ranked No. 1 in MLB as recently as July. That's a credit to how well the Braves have rebuilt through trades and the draft. The one untouchable in their system is likely Dansby Swanson, whom the Braves would presumably like to keep as their starting shortstop after his successful breakthrough late in 2016.

Everyone else would presumably be on the table for a Sale trade. Ozzie Albies. Sean Newcomb. Kolby Allard. Ian Anderson. Mike Soroka. Touki Toussaint. Max Fried. And so on.

The Braves would have every reason to give up several of those names if an ace starting pitcher were the missing link between them and contention in the NL East as soon as 2017. But therein lies the rub.

Does anyone think this team is just one player away from being ready to win?

Sure, the Braves did go 37-35 after the All-Star break in 2016. But they did so while allowing 23 more runs than they scored. That's a glaring warning not to read too much into their surge.

It's early, but the 2017 projections at FanGraphs only have the Braves improving from 68 wins to 74 wins. Sounds about right for a team that would be mostly the same except with full seasons from Swanson, who is very good, and Dickey, Colon and Matt Kemp, who are not very good.

There's not a ton of uncertainty elsewhere in the NL East, either. The Washington Nationals are going to be good. The New York Mets will at least have their arms. The Miami Marlins will at least have their bats. None of the three figures to plummet and open a door for the Braves to sneak through.

Of course, the Braves wouldn't be under too much pressure to win immediately with Sale. But playing the long game with him doesn't make much sense, either.

With Sale due for free agency after 2019, the clock would begin ticking in 2018. One problem there is that trading for him will have emptied the farm system of quite a few prospects who might have been graduated to the majors or used in trades.

That would force the Braves to load up in the 2017 and 2018 free-agent markets that will be better stocked than this one. But other teams will be looking to do the same thing, and even the Braves' new stadium may only be so helpful in allowing them to spend competitively.

A better idea would be to give up on Sale and prioritize Archer instead. He has a contract that runs for two years longer at virtually the same price. His prospect cost may be the same because of that, but at least it would put the Braves in a better position to play the long game. And with a pitcher who's darn good in his own right.

Or, the Braves could do nothing and continue to build from within. They're headed in the right direction in that regard. Rather than try to jump ahead, keeping it slow and steady is the way to go.

It's not often an intervention urges the subject to keep doing what they're doing, but...Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

                         

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Payroll and contract info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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