The Braves made the biggest deal of the club’s offseason over the weekend when they acquired Chris Sale as they sent the Red Sox Vaughn Grissom.
Boston will also be covering $17 million of Sale’s $27.5 million salary for the 2024 campaign, according to the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier. It’s a deal that gives Boston a promising young bat with six years of team control that had no obvious role in Atlanta, who received a once-dominant starter that has plenty of postseason experience.
Bradford Doolittle of ESPN graded the trade, and Braves fans will love his take on the deal.
Here’s why we can think of this trade as a marginal move for the Braves: Marco Gonzales. Allow us to explain.
Atlanta entered the offseason with the makings of a playoff rotation already in house. That group was led by the fine veteran trio of Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Charlie Morton. The depth of the group was bolstered by a mix of young pitchers who are either on the rise or have enjoyed enough recent success to qualify as bounce-back candidates. Among the pitchers that fit these broad descriptions are Bryce Elder, Dylan Dodd, AJ Smith-Shawver and, when he’s fully rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, Ian Anderson. There are also prospects who might help next season as well, such as Darius Vines and 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep.
Anthopoulos made his one free agent splash by adding even more rotation depth, signing Reynaldo Lopez (who can also relieve), and has additionally lengthened the depth chart with veteran Triple-A depth in Taylor Widener and Zach Logue. It was a mix that screamed for one more dependable veteran starter to raise the floor and stabilize the innings outlook.
When Anthopoulos swung a deal with fellow trade addict Jerry DiPoto for LF Jarred Kelenic, he also took on lefty Gonzales, along with 1B Evan White. Gonzales seemed like the right guy to fill that end-of-the-rotation veteran role, especially if the surgery he underwent in August addressed the injury that might have accounted for his performance drop-off. Now we know that Anthopoulos had larger aspirations than acquiring an injury-bounce-back candidate.
Gonzales was flipped to the Pirates, though the Braves are still on the hook for more than $9 million of his 2024 salary. Sure, the Red Sox are picking up a sizable chunk of Sale’s pact, but when you tack the residual from Gonzales, this is very much a salary slot worthy of a bedrock starting pitcher. At his best, Sale has been that and a whole lot more — but it’s been a while since he has pitched at that level.
Since the beginning of the 2021 season, Sale has posted a 3.93 ERA over 151 innings; Gonzales is at 4.21 over 376⅓. They are very different pitchers and the per-inning gap widens when you factor in playing venues, but, still, you can see how we’re talking about a marginal upgrade here, especially given the difference in volume.
That is, unless you think about it through the prism of Sale as a member of the October rotation next to Strider, Fried and Morton. And if you think of him as the flexible fireballer who closed out the Red Sox’s 2018 championship by mowing down the Dodgers’ trio of Justin Turner, Kike Hernandez and Manny Machado. That’s the guy, or at least some close approximation of him, whom Anthopoulos is acquiring — the guy who can be a difference maker amid the razor-thin margins of playoff baseball.
This kind of maneuvering has been the consistent theme of the Braves’ winter. Target what you want and don’t worry about the money or the talent it takes to get that player. Getting Kelenic meant taking on the money for White and Gonzalez. Both were flipped in subsequent trades.
Among other moves, Atlanta dealt five useful players for a lefty reliever in Aaron Bummer. They took on dead money by trading for and waiving Matt Carpenter, just to add a hard-throwing reliever in Ray Kerr to bolster the bullpen depth. The Braves’ winter has been stuffed with moves like this, all aimed at upgrading the roster beneath the Braves’ layer of top-line talent, which is among the best in the majors.
The Braves are an organization that is very much swimming in gravy, with riches in revenue and talent alike. Anthopoulos has leveraged all of that into moving around money and players as if roster building was a game of Tetris, which it kind of is. We can really only judge this dizzying spree by what the final product looks like and we’re not there yet. And we may not be there until October. Right now though, it’s looking very promising.
In a vacuum, Chris Sale is a welcomed sight, and it makes it even better that the Red Sox are covering a lot of the contract. Moreover, because of deferred money, the Braves will only be on the hook for $500K in 2024 and will have the option to pay him $20 million in 2025.
However, some Braves fans aren’t seeing it that way because of the cost — Vaughn Grissom. It’s a difficult price to pay, considering he’s under team control for six more years and already has an elite contact bat. However, he didn’t have an obvious role in Atlanta, given the offseason acquisition of Jarred Kelenic and Grissom’s inability to play shortstop, which is exactly what Doolittle points out.
In dealing the sweet-swinging Grissom, 23, in this trade, Atlanta comes out under water in any pragmatic valuation of the deal. For one thing, he’s good and, for another, he has less than a year of MLB service time on his tab. Sale, on the other hand, has a pricey club option for 2025, one that could be converted into a guarantee if he has a big enough 2024 season that he ends up in the top 10 of Cy Young balloting, according to Cot’s Contracts. Alas, the Braves’ may need to limit his innings — and potential awards candidacy — in order to make sure he’s at his best in October, so 2024 is almost certainly a walk year for him.
The trade does open up a hole on the Atlanta depth chart, as Grissom — an infielder with the flexibility to play in the outfield when needed — seemed like the righty complement the Braves’ outfield rotation needed. Now it still needs that player, especially as a righty companion for the lefty-vulnerable Kelenic.
Atlanta’s winter is still not quite done, and if the offseason to date is any indication, it’ll be fascinating to see how Anthopoulos goes about putting the finishing touches on this potential masterpiece.
Braves grade: A-
For the Braves, the goal isn’t to win more regular season games; it’s building a roster that can get to the top of the mountain in October. The acquisition of Chris Sale is the perfect example of that. The Red Sox get a controllable bat that fills a void at second base. It could work out for both clubs.