In order to ensure to a reasonable degree of certainty that baseball is the only job they’ll ever really need to hold for the rest of their lives, major league players have to wade across three years of playing for roughly the league minimum before the big money begins to trickle in through arbitration.
It’s a system that allows teams to pick one of two routes for getting more value than they pay for out of their players. They can simply enjoy the years of league minimum salary, or they can use their players’ uncertainty about their future as a negotiation tool to sign them to long-term, below market deals.
The White Sox clearly opted for the latter path on Thursday, signing Chris Sale to a five-year, $32.5 million extension, with team options for a sixth year at $12.5 million and a seventh year at $13.5 million. Both of those options have $1 million buyouts, which are factored into that $32.5 million total, in case you were wondering why the following doesn’t add up.
- 2013: $850,000
- 2014: $3,500,000
- 2015: $6,000,000
- 2016: $9,150,000
- 2017: $12,000,000
- 2018: $12,500,000 – OPTION
- 2019: $13,500,000 – OPTION
If he played out the entirety of the deal and both options, Sale would receive $57.5 million, with a $2.5 million escalator in place for the final season if he wins the Cy Young award, or a more mundane $1.5 million escalator if he finishes second or third in the voting. Suffice it to say, if the White Sox are paying Chris Sale $16 million in 2019, things have worked out pretty well.
Just looking at those prices, and projecting the value of having Sale making $8.57 million per season over the next seven years, when FanGraphs’ wins above replacement values placed his worth at $22.2 million, is enough to get very excited. Excited because we tend to automatically make the logical leap that having Chris Sale around at an affordable rate means that the money saved will be spent elsewhere, and wisely. But also excited for the fairly straight-forward reason that Chris Sale is a joy to watch, Chris Sale has been a consistently dominant player, Chris Sale is a likable player who tried hard and now Chris Sale is padlocked to the White Sox for a very long time.
Color me surprised.
Just this past Sunday, I wrote how that strange moment in time last May when the White Sox briefly yanked Sale out of the rotation due to concern about elbow tenderness stood apart from an otherwise flawless pattern of downplaying his velocity loss and concern in his mechanics, and expressing confidence in his future. Now that Sale’s been handed a ‘cornerstone of the franchise’-type contract, it really stands out.
Sometime over the last 10 months the White Sox shifted from perhaps overly cautious about Sale’s ability to hold up as a starter to unapologetically zealous in their belief, to where their trademark ability to avoid pitcher injuries has to be presumed to be at work in order to explain why such a commitment would be made to not just a pitcher, but a particularly risky-looking pitcher.
Of course, the contract reflects the White Sox knowledge of the risk they’re taking. Sale’s more than good and young enough to miss one–or hell, even two–of these seasons and still provide $60 million worth of value. Injuries don’t work so simply, they linger, leave scars, sap away at effectiveness and break wills. But ignoring that, the Sox at most committed to paying Sale two years worth of elite starter pay, with three years of providing extra pitching if he’s feeling up for it.
If there ever was a player I figured the White Sox would go year-to-year with–besides of course, a Scott Boras client, or a marginal talent that they had no business committing to, of course–it would be Sale. I’m not sure what star player you do go year-to-year with if not Sale. Maybe none, if it can be helped. I imagine it would have to be an offensive player, outside of the White Sox developmental wheelhouse.
The White Sox have made a living scraping out extra value by being better at keeping pitchers healthier and more effective than they should be. Now, they’ll be putting their organizational strengths up to a very high profile and important test, one that represents the White Sox newest, latest (and first under Rick Hahn) attempt to establish a new franchise core. It’s a risk, but it’s the risk that they, more than any other team in baseball, should be willing to take.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan