When Chris Sale signed an extension with the Boston Red Sox in 2019—five more years under contract with an option for a sixth—he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Sale had been an All-Star for seven years running. He’d received Cy Young votes in each of those seasons and had led the league in strikeouts multiple times. His wiry frame had proven surprisingly durable; Sale had crossed the 200-inning threshold four times and had never made fewer than 27 starts in a season. All the usual pitching questions of staying power applied—Sale turned 30 a week after the deal was announced—but the extension nonetheless felt like an obvious win. It seemed clear the Red Sox had locked in an ace as the anchor of their rotation for years to come.
Sale, a seven-time All-Star with Boston, has struggled with injuries in recent years.
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That all feels a very long time ago now. Sale’s last few seasons with the Red Sox have been eaten by injury. And it turns out he will not finish out his contract in Boston. It was announced on Saturday that Sale had been traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for young infielder Vaughn Grissom. The trade is a one-for-one, with the Red Sox paying $17 million of the $27.5 million Sale is owed in 2024, and it was first reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN.
Here are our grades:
What do you get for the roster that has everything? More starting pitching depth.
Atlanta has won six consecutive NL East titles and boasts one of the best offenses in the game. But its roster had little room for Grissom. The 23-year-old once seemed like the heir apparent at shortstop for Dansby Swanson, who departed in free agency, but Grissom has struggled to own the position defensively. That meant he received hardly any major-league playing time in 2023 because there was simply no room elsewhere in this stacked infield. (And this front office’s habit of signing stars to early extensions meant no space would be opening up in the immediate future.) So, yes, Atlanta is giving up a promising young player, but it’s one who doesn’t have a natural fit with the club right now. This feels like a smart time to move Grissom. And in return, Atlanta gets a high-upside starting pitcher who should provide some useful depth at worst.
It’s true that Sale is not what he was when he signed that extension in 2019. But his last few seasons have been so injury-ridden that it’s hard to say just who he is at this point. The 34-year-old has been sidelined in recent years by Tommy John surgery, a rib fracture, shoulder issues and a broken finger. He threw just over 100 innings in ‘23 after barely pitching at all in the combined three seasons prior. The results were mixed: Sale posted a 4.30 ERA (106 ERA+) with 11 K/9. While his velocity stayed roughly in line with what it had been pre-injury, Sale could struggle with his command, and his performance ran hot-and-cold. But these numbers could be far more promising with another year of good health to work towards returning to form. Of course, “with another year of good health” is a rather serious caveat, given the recent history. But even if Sale doesn’t meaningfully improve? The back end of this rotation should very much appreciate 100 innings of league-average-ish pitching. (Especially with Boston covering most of the salary here.) And if Sale does get closer to the performer he once was? One of the best rotations in baseball will look that much better.
Grissom played in 23 games for the Braves during the 2023 season.
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Red Sox: A-
Grissom may not have had a natural spot in Atlanta, but he sure does in Boston. The young infielder can slot right in at second base. (Shortstop will likely continue to be manned by Trevor Story.) The keystone was a big question this winter for the Red Sox, after a lackluster performance from Christian Arroyo in 2023, and it looks like the front office has found its answer in Grissom.
Grissom struggled last year to match his performance from a strong rookie campaign in 2022. Atlanta ultimately kept him in MLB for just 23 games in ‘23. But he looked sharp down in Triple-A—posting a .921 OPS—and he should benefit from a chance to move away from shortstop and grow on a roster that offers a little more flexibility. There’s ideally more development here yet to happen. But that should fit Boston’s timeline of contention just fine.
The Red Sox are not in an enviable spot. They’ve finished last in AL East in three of the last four seasons; much of that time has been spent shedding payroll. Former chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was fired in September after a rocky few years. That makes this the first winter for his replacement, Craig Breslow, and this trade is his biggest move yet. It’s a bold one. But while the Red Sox certainly have more to do—they’ll need to acquire some more pitching to plug the holes in this rotation—this feels like a promising start.