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Grading the Chris Sale trade for both the Red Sox and Braves

Atlanta gets its rotation upgrade, while Boston hopes to have finally found an answer to its second-base woes.

Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox reacts during the fourth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park on September 22, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox delivered a major jolt to Hot Stove season on Saturday afternoon, with star lefty Chris Sale headed to Atlanta in exchange for infield prospect Vaughn Grissom. The 34-year-old Sale, who waived his no-trade clause in order to make this deal happen, may not be the overwhelming ace he once was — he pitched to a 4.30 ERA last season and hasn’t thrown 150 innings in a season since 2018 — but his pedigree alone makes this the second biggest trade of the winter so far.

We knew Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos was hunting for a rotation upgrade, the last real area of need for an Atlanta roster that’s loaded pretty much everywhere else. But did he choose the right target in Sale? And what does this mean for the Red Sox, who seem intent on straddling the line between contending in the present and building for the future? Let’s break it all down.

Chris Sale trade grades

Braves: B+

Injuries and age have taken their toll over the last few years, so it’s worth reminding everyone just how impressive Sale’s body of work truly is. This is among the most accomplished pitchers in the game, a seven-time All-Star who finished in the top six of Cy Young Award voting in seven consecutive seasons from 2012-18. He’s had a hard time staying healthy since that remarkable stretch; he was limited to just 11 total appearances between 2020 and 2022, and a shoulder injury kept him out for a portion of the 2023 season as well. But while he may not be the guy he was at his peak, there’s still ample evidence that he can be a very effective starter, and that makes him a worthy target for a Braves team hell-bent on erasing two consecutive postseason flameouts.

Sale’s 2023 ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. The lefty got off to a rough start to the year, but once he settled in, he started to look like the Sale of old: Over his final 15 starts, he posted a 3.16 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 79.2 innings. He also closed the season on a tear, with just two runs allowed over his final 16 frames. He still misses plenty of bats (75th percentile in whiff rate, 88th in K rate) and he still suppresses hard contact (73rd in average exit velocity). Of course, he isn’t getting any younger, and his recent injury history is what it is. But when Sale is on the mound in 2024, there’s every reason to think that he’ll be a plus contributor.

It’s fair to wonder whether, given the durability concerns of guys like Max Fried and Charlie Morton, Anthopoulos would’ve been better off targeting more of a sure thing. But whether Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes or someone else, a more sure thing would be ... well, a lot more expensive. There are real concerns about whether Grissom can 1) hit and 2) play either middle infield spot at the Major League level, and even if he answers both of those in the affirmative, there’s little need for him on a Braves team that already features Ozzie Albies and Orlando Arcia. Sale brings just about every bit of the upside of the other trade candidates Atlanta could’ve targeted, and he does so at a substantial discount.

Teams these days focus on two traits in particular with pitchers: suppressing quality of contact and generating empty swings. Sale can still do both at above-average clips thanks to his 94 mph fastball and signature slider. Indeed, he ranked in the 73rd percentile or better in both average exit velocity against and whiff rate, according to Statcast’s calculations. If you knew nothing else about Sale, you’d probably feel decent about his chances of remaining a plus contributor. Maybe Sale doesn’t hold up and we look back wondering what if. Maybe the Braves should have ponied up (if, that is, their farm system was deemed good enough to draw from by the White Sox and/or Brewers). But you can understand why they took this route instead, and Sale is still a very good player.

Red Sox: C

If you squint, you can understand what new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow was thinking here. Sale’s health makes him tough to count on, and he’s set to hit free agency next winter. The Sox got very little production from the second base spot in 2023, and Grissom’s .330/.419/.501 slash line at Triple-A — not to mention the 119 OPS+ he put up in his first 41 games in the Majors back in 2022 — indicate his abilities at the plate. Boston got younger, and cheaper, and filled a major need.

Or, well, they may have filled a major need. Atlanta gave Grissom every opportunity to seize the starting shortstop job this past spring, but he flamed out amid a flurry of defensive miscues. It remains to be seen whether he can even handle second base in the bigs; he was poor there in 2022, and the Braves appeared to be in the midst of converting him into an outfielder. There are also questions about the bat: He posted a dismal .659 OPS in 23 games at the Major League level in 2023, and his ground ball-heavy approach limits his offensive upside. Maybe he unlocks more power as he gets older, and maybe he’s at least passable defensively at second. That’s a lot of ifs, though, especially when it comes at the expense of your best starting pitcher.

If the Red Sox do have designs on competing in 2024, it’s hard to see how this helps. Even if Grissom pans out, the upgrade at second would figure to be canceled out by the downgrade on the mound (assuming Breslow doesn’t pull off a real shocker on the starting pitching market). And if Boston has its eyes on 2025 and beyond, well, this doesn’t move the needle much there either: Giolito can opt out after next season, and even the most realistic best-case scenario for Grissom isn’t the sort of player that moves the needle. Despite new leadership, the Sox remain caught in between, refusing the maximize the present without effectively building for the future.