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White Sox transaction review: The Chris Sale trade

The White Sox gave up a lot, but one year in, it looks like they received a lot in return

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Over the course of eight months, the White Sox made several significant trades to firmly establish a new course.

The Sox could have justified making one more run at the postseason with their core four, but as the winter meetings drew near, all signs pointed to tearing it down. Sure enough, Rick Hahn dominated December by trading his best pitcher and position player, and while the subsequent major moves didn’t come together until the regular season, he ultimately accomplished his goal of converting veterans into prominent prospects.

We’ll spend this week figuring out how well those moves panned out one year in, and it makes sense to start with the trade that started it all.

The White Sox dealt Chris Sale to Boston for four prospects on Dec. 6 after a couple of days of public footsie with the Washington Nationals. Sale was the Sox’ most valuable player whether in terms of performance or contract, and so this trade is the most vital to the Sox’ long-term picture.

After one year, what does it look like?

The White Sox traded ...

*Chris Sale, who delivered a top-two Cy Young season for Boston, posting a 2.90 ERA while leading the league in innings (214 13), strikeouts (308), FIP (2.45) and fWAR (7.7). His fastball returned to 94-95, but he threw it less frequently than usual, replacing it with a few more changeups and a lot more sliders.

Through July, Sale had a 2.37 ERA while averaging seven innings and 10 strikeouts per start. It seemed as though the Red Sox figured out how to unlock Sale’s true potential. Sale’s last two months showed that two of his biggest problems in Chicago followed him to Boston — the late-season fade, and the Cleveland Indians.

He posted a 4.09 ERA over his final 11 starts, but that masks the extent of his problems, because he was dominant in five starts and a dud in six. Two of the latter came against the Tribe, who still have his number. The fizzle might have allowed Corey Kluber to pass him in the Cy Young race, and the malaise lingered into October. Sale allowed nine runs over 9 23 innings to the Astros, taking the loss in both ALDS games he pitched. He struggled in his first outing, but the second was a strong relief effort undermined by pushed luck. He gave up a leadoff homer in his fourth inning of relief work, then saw another run come home on Craig Kimbrel’s watch.

The White Sox received ...

*Yoan Moncada, who could have been called up earlier than July 19 based on his play with the Charlotte Knights. He started the year raking, got sidetracked by a hand injury, then found a sustainable track by the end of June. With Yolmer Sanchez holding his own as an everyday second baseman, the White Sox chose not to force open an infield spot, but instead waited until trading Todd Frazier, which created an organic opportunity for realignment.

Moncada was the rare White Sox position player prospect whose struggles were born from passivity, not overaggression. He took his way into bad counts, resulting in a .176 average and 37 percent strikeout rate after his first month. In fact, his average lingered in the .170s as late as Sept. 9.

The story is that Jose Abreu ordered new bats for Moncada, and that he first put them to use on Sept. 11. He went 3-for-6 with a triple against the Royals that night, and looked like a big-league hitter the rest of the season. However it happened, he hit .308/.376/.513 with eight walks and 22 strikeouts over his final 87 plate appearances, giving him a respectable .231/.338/.412 line for his rookie season.

His overall value for 2017 rests on how you assess his defense. DRS liked it (six runs saved), UZR didn’t (-2.3 runs below average), and so Baseball-Reference likes him better than FanGraphs (1.7 to 0.9 WAR). I’d call his performance average with the potential for more. His problem wasn’t getting to the ball, but occasionally getting out of sorts trying to make plays quickly. Either way, his glovework is more advanced than initially advertised.

That’s one of many areas where one can easily see room for at least mild improvement. He has a strong foundation, and he can take a step forward by reducing avoidable mistakes on defense, adding a few stolen bases or refining his right-handed swing against good lefties. If he can make progress in all of those areas, there’s a cornerstone.

*Michael Kopech, who surpassed all expectations by throwing more than double his previous career high in innings. He worked 119 in Birmingham and 15 in Charlotte, and he busted down a fatigue wall with an overpowering second half.

And it’s not like his first half was a disappointment. The 4.02 ERA was a little inflated, but he struck out 101 batters over 78 13 innings and limited opponents to a .204 average, so nobody questioned the stuff. Kopech surpassed his previous best workload by late June, which is around the time when his command started slipping and the starts got shorter. A breather appeared to be in order, and it took the form of a Futures Game appearance. That inning was his only work over a 10-day period, and he returned to the mound for Birmingham a changed man.

Kopech posted a 0.66 ERA with 54 strikeouts to just seven walks over 41 innings in his final six starts with the Barons. That warranted a late-season promotion to Charlotte, and his first three Triple-A starts were good enough — all decent or better, all five innings — to sustain the hype into next season. He should be the subject of incessant promotion questions during the first half of 2018.

*Luis Alexander Basabe, a toolsy center field prospect who didn’t distinguish himself during his first year with the Dash. He hit .221/.320/.320 in his age-20 season at Winston-Salem, limited to 107 games due to a couple of injuries.

The upside is that Basabe recovered from a prolonged slump through all of May and June. He finished the year hitting .259/.338/.379 with 13 walks to 26 strikeouts over his last 36 games. Unfortunately, his season ended on Aug. 13, which prevented him from reaching escape velocity from a crowded low-minors center field situation. He’ll get extra reps in winter ball, as he just reported to Caracas. Assuming that doesn’t change his forecast, he’ll enter 2018 battling it out with Alex Call and two other Luises (Gonzalez and Robert).

*Victor Diaz, who turned out the way most lottery tickets do: no agreeable numbers. He was limited to 12 innings over 14 games. Eight of them came with Winston-Salem, with whom he posted a 23.63 ERA. He was only seen from late May through late July.

The White Sox fared ...

... pretty well.

Both teams received what they could have expected. The tl;dr version of the above: Sale was a Cy Young contender as usual, Moncada finished with a flourish, Basabe was a little disappointing but still has age on his side, and Diaz looked every bit the throw-in.

Kopech stands apart as the one guy in this deal who defied expectations beyond a standard deviation. I figured he would surpass 100 innings with room to spare, but I also figured the ebbs and flows would last most of the season, first due to rawness, then to fatigue. He instead ironed out his biggest flaws by mid-July, and when the prospects get re-ranked over the winter, he should be the first pitcher listed.

TINSTAAPP means we can’t start penciling in his future MLB value, but he did what he could to position himself for future-fixture status, and that’s all the Sox could have hoped for in 2017. His big step forward overshadows Basabe’s small step back and tilts the package in the direction of a success.

The White Sox gave up a cost-controlled ace who continued pitching like one, so the trade is far from decided. The same would’ve been true if Moncada and Kopech were mild disappointments, so that’s not especially profound. It’s far more enjoyable to follow when Moncada and Kopech are showcasing their wares like they did at the end of 2017, though, and the trade will look like a winner as long as one can easily envision Rick Hahn turning one star into two.