Chris Sale getting Manny Machado to swing out of his heels and fall on one knee for the final out of the 2018 World Series had to be on Alex Anthopoulos’ mind when he traded for the seven-time All-Star starter.
That Chris Sale, the one that helped the Red Sox win their most recent championship, the one that prompts waves of nausea for opposing batters, is the starting pitcher the Braves need for October.
Atlanta’s blockbuster trade for Sale on Saturday, which sent former top prospect Vaughn Grissom to Boston, is all about the postseason. Sure, the Braves are hopeful Sale can, at the very least, repeat his modest regular-season production from last year. But their main objective is to utilize Sale’s strikeout-heavy prowess in the playoffs, when their own starters have mostly fizzled out the past two years.
So, after the Dodgers stole this offseason by inking Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to megadeals, the Braves responded by not-so-quietly acquiring the pitcher with the highest K/9 rate (11.1) in Major League Baseball history. With Ohtani limited to hitting in 2024, Atlanta just took the crown for the best rotation in baseball. Once again, the rest of the league should be nervous.
Sale joins a stacked Braves staff that features Max Fried, Spencer Strider and Charlie Morton. Add in free-agent addition Reynaldo López and 2023 All-Star Bryce Elder, and Atlanta could comfortably trot out a six-man rotation. Looming in the background are right-hander Ian Anderson, who’s on the mend from Tommy John surgery, and No. 1 club prospect AJ Smith-Shawver, who showed promise in five starts this past year.
All together, that’s an enviable volume of starting-pitching talent that neatly complements the Braves’ top offense in baseball. Adding at least one more starter this winter was always their biggest area of need, and now their low-risk, potentially high-reward acquisition of Sale underlines an already busy offseason with moves designed to, of course, not run out of arms.
Pitching depth, as we’ve seen, is essential to going the distance in the postseason. Just this year, the World Series-winning Texas Rangers relied on their many free-agent signings and trades to bolster their rotation after Jacob deGrom, a major FA pickup himself, went down with Tommy John in April. By late October, every Rangers playoff game had been started by a pitcher who wasn’t on the team the previous year. First-year Rangers Nathan Eovaldi, Jordan Montgomery, Max Scherzer and Andrew Heaney did the heavy lifting as the franchise won its first title.
The Braves, believe it or not, needed reinforcements after consecutive 100-win seasons. Their starting pitching petered out in each of the past two playoff runs, leading to a pair of NLDS eliminations. Those are serious letdowns for a club that won the World Series in 2021 and was the winningest team in baseball in 2023.
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In back-to-back Octobers, Fried was either dealing with an ailment or rusty after weeks of absence, while Strider looked overmatched by the offensively-charged Phillies lineup. In this most recent NLDS performance, the Braves lost Morton to injury but hoped their historic offense would make up for their lack of rotational strength. Instead, their bats went cold for a second straight postseason, and the ensuing early exit was not just underwhelming but unacceptable.
Sale might no longer be the lights-out lefty who averaged 198 innings per year from 2012 to 2018 for the White Sox and Red Sox. Tommy John Surgery in 2020 and various injuries reduced him to a combined 3.93 ERA across just 151 innings from 2021-23. Still, this past year was Sale’s best since 2019. He recorded a 4.30 ERA, 102.2 innings and 125 strikeouts, while surrendering 15 home runs and 29 walks across 20 starts. As he enters his age-35 season, expect the Braves to carefully manage his usage to maximize his effectiveness and ultimately preserve the seven-time All-Star for October. As a bonus, or perhaps a priority, he gives Atlanta another lefty to throw at the Dodgers and their left-handed-heavy lineup.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, were overdue in moving on from their former ace. Since Boston traded for Sale before the 2017 season, he was often unhealthy and unreliable, and he certainly wasn’t coming cheap. As part of Boston’s new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow’s first major move, the Red Sox are reportedly covering $17 million of Sale’s $27.5 million salary in 2024. Sale is set to enter free agency after 2024, but he also has an attractive $20 million club option that would allow the Braves to keep him in tow for another year.
Boston, conversely, has six years of team control with Grissom. The soon-to-be 23-year-old was a star prospect at shortstop but has struggled there in his big-league cameos and figures to occupy second base for the Red Sox. At the plate, he slashed .291/.353/.440 with five home runs and 18 RBIs across 41 games in a sparkling 2022 rookie season. But after he struggled early in 2023 as Orlando Arcia was turning in an All-Star first half, he appeared in just 19 games before being sent back to Triple-A (where, it’s worth noting, he raked). The Braves are, no doubt, sorry to see Grissom go, but there was no obvious position for him in Atlanta with Arcia, Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley blocking his path in the infield. Now in Boston, Grissom will receive regular playing time and can develop in the majors.
The unexpected Sale-for-Grissom swap is a trade that makes sense for both sides. The Braves add a starting pitcher to bolster an intimidating rotation that once again puts the club in the conversation for top World Series contenders. The key for Atlanta will be figuring out how to keep Sale healthy, but even then, they didn’t risk as much on him as, say, the Rangers did with deGrom’s five-year, $185 million contract. And the Red Sox, one day after signing right-hander Lucas Giolito, net their second baseman of the future, all while freeing up payroll and eliminating a rotational headache.
The outlook for 2024 has significantly improved for the powerhouse Braves and the rebuilding Red Sox, as this win-win trade heats up a lukewarm hot stove just before 2023 comes to a close. It should also serve as a reminder to the superteam Dodgers: The National League, much less the World Series, will still be decided next fall, not this winter.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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