On Thursday, the Chicago White Sox announced they had signed soon-to-be 24-year-old left-hander Chris Sale to a five-year, $32.5 million contract, taking him through the 2017 season. The deal also includes options for 2018 and '19. Sale finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting last season with a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts in 192 innings. Sale is ostensibly the ace of a pitching staff that includes former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, as well as John Danks and Gavin Floyd.
The White Sox have not yet decided on an Opening Day starter, but Sale has earned Peavy's respect. "Chris is the best pitcher on the team," said Peavy. "Your best guy goes Opening Day."
Sale, who pitched out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2011, has earned the respect and admiration of a very accomplished pitcher, which bodes well for the White Sox. On an average annual value basis, the deal pays Sale as if he were somewhere between a replacement-level and an average starter -- a 1-WAR player, more or less. Sale posted 5.7 WAR last season, according to Baseball-Reference. Given that Sale's best years are still ahead of him, barring injuries and other misfortune, it looks like the White Sox may have gotten themselves a bargain in locking up Sale early.
The White Sox join a growing list of teams who have taken the initiative to get their young, productive players signed to long-term deals well before they become eligible for free agency. The San Francisco Giants and 23-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner agreed to a five-year, $35 million deal (also with options for 2018 and '19) last April, and they will eventually lock up catcher Buster Posey -- who is eligible for free agency after the 2016 season -- as well.
As a result, the White Sox expect Sale to become the face of the franchise. They have no other player who has his youth, his ceiling, and his importance in terms of position. His jersey will be their best-selling, his image will grace their merchandise, and he will be the biggest draw for fans buying tickets.
The question then becomes, "How good can Sale be?"
Sale is one of five pitchers to average at least a strikeout per inning while maintaining a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.7 or better at the age of 23 or younger. The others include Clayton Kershaw (2011), Mat Latos (2010), Mark Prior (2003) and Dwight Gooden (1984). Kershaw and Gooden need no explanation as both turned out to be aces. Latos has developed into a reliable starter -- an underrated one. Prior would have been something special had injuries not derailed his career.
While Sale's fastball-slider approach -- the two pitches accounted for 86 percent of his pitches last year -- has worked out quite well, he could add more pitches to his arsenal. Phillies lefty Cole Hamels succeeded early in his career with a fastball and changeup, but implemented a cut fastball and improved his curve, which have turned out to be tremendous assets in recent years. So, not only do the stats show Sale being formidable for years to come, he could even be better than we can reasonably project right now. The White Sox and their fans should be very happy with Thursday’s news.