The American League Central is minus one ace.
The Chicago White Sox shook up the Winter Meetings on Tuesday afternoon, sending left-hander Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for highly regarded infield prospect Yoan Moncada, pitcher Michael Kopech and two other prospects. The deal was first reported by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.
The trade signals the start of a rebuilding project in Chicago and cements the Red Sox as the prohibitive favorite in the American League. And the ripple effects could be felt in Kansas City, too.
Sale, 27, is a bona fide ace in a sport in which pitching is the most coveted commodity. He’s a five-time All-Star who started the All-Star Game for the American League in 2016 and has struck out more than 200 batters for four straight seasons.
He is also no longer plying his craft in the American League Central.
The White Sox, long stuck in baseball purgatory — in the space between contending and rebuilding — delivered a significant statement by unloading their best pitcher with three years remaining on his contract. According to industry consensus, the club acquired sizable upside in the deal, including Moncada, viewed as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Yet they will likely not be a factor in 2017, opting to play the long game instead.
“We have made no secret heading into the offseason our goal is to put ourselves in the best position to contend for an extended period of time for multiple championships,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “Given where we were as an organization entering this offseason, we knew we were going to have to make some painful decisions.”
It’s possible, of course, that other White Sox deals could follow. The Detroit Tigers, who could exceed the league’s luxury-tax threshold for the second straight year, have also pondered selling a piece or two to shed salary. But they appear content, for now, to stand pat after finishing 86-75 last season, eight games behind division champion Cleveland.
That leaves the Royals vying with Detroit and Cleveland in a division where the schedule could soften. Even if the Tigers do not sell, the evolving structure of the AL Central could factor into the Royals’ philosophy heading into 2017.
On Tuesday afternoon, Royals general manager Dayton Moore insisted he was not surprised by the Sale trade. But perhaps it did reinforce an expectation.
“With where we are payroll-wise,” Moore said, “with where we are with the control of our players within this opportunity that we have to win, we’re not reacting to anything that the other clubs do at this point in time.”
The Royals entered the week open to the idea of trading a member of their core, yet Moore has been consistent in stating that any trade will have to benefit the club in the short term and long term.
Club officials state publicly their belief that the organization can sustain success beyond 2017. But given the coming exodus of free agents, it remains clear that 2017 could be the Royals’ best opportunity for another deep playoff run — at least for a while.
“We’re going to focus on winning in 2017 and beyond,” Moore said Monday evening. “We want to be a consistent winning organization. And to do that, we’re going to have to look at different things. We’re going to have to be flexible on our thinking. We’re going to have to continue to rely on our farm system.”
The Royals are not considering a fire sale this offseason, Moore said. And the events of Tuesday offer another reason why.
When asked Monday morning about possible trades involving stars from the White Sox and Tigers, Royals manager Ned Yost conceded that such deals could affect the club’s strategy.
“You could probably say no, but the honest answer is probably yeah,” Yost said. “You’re always looking at teams that you compete against, and if they were to trade one of their key players, that’s one less guy you gotta contend with in your division.
“I hope they do it.”