Could Braves Add Top Starter To Rotation?

Welcome to the Speculation Station, otherwise known as the Hot Stove.

The Atlanta Braves entered the offseason with a very specific shopping list. General manager John Coppolella and company went to work right away in the wake of the GM Meetings, signing veterans R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, but there are still a few items left to pick up as the holidays approach. The search will include both free agent and trade possibilities with an approach that Coppolella has routinely referred to as “leave no stone unturned.”

With two veterans already added to the rotation, the rumor mill has also connected Atlanta with a handful of young, front-line starters. Chris Sale of the White Sox, Chris Archer of the Rays and Sonny Gray of the Athletics have all been mentioned as targets should the Braves opt to spend some of their considerable prospect talent to upgrade the starting five even further. Adding such an arm would signal that Atlanta is one step closer to returning to contention.

Chris Sale | Chicago White Sox | Under team control through: 2019

As the White Sox mull a rebuild, no asset could bring them as much in return as their ace starting pitcher. Sale will turn 28 years old just before opening day of 2017 and is in the final guaranteed year of an extension he signed with Chicago in 2013. He will make $12 million next season, but his contract contains a pair of team options for 2018 ($12.5 million) and 2019 ($13 million) with affordable $1 million buy-outs for both of those years. Those salaries make Sale an even more sought after commodity for teams looking to substantially strengthen a rotation.

In terms of pure performance, Sale has established himself as one of the top left-handers in baseball over the past five seasons. Atlanta’s projected rotation lacks a lefty and is coming off a season in which it did not get a single start from a southpaw. Sale tied a career-best with a 17-win season for Chicago last year, turning in a 3.34 ERA with 233 strikeouts in a career-high 226.2 IP. A five-time All-Star, Sale has finished in the top five in the American League Cy Young voting three times. He led the AL with 274 strikeouts in 2015 and tied for second last season. An excellent control pitcher as well, Sale has struck out 5.47 batters for every walk he’s issued over the last four seasons, all while punching out 10.3 batters per nine innings. He is also among the top five annually in virtually every category, including opponents’ average and OPS.

Despite his sparkling career on the field, Sale clashed with the White Sox front office on a couple of occasions in 2016. The first was over the Adam LaRoche and son incident back in spring training, while the second was a bizarre turn of events in which Sale took scissors to the retro jerseys the team was set to wear on the day of his start. Do those incidents lessen his trade value? Not in the least. However, it is worth noting that it has not always been smooth sailing for the organization. That aside, his track record of dominance and dependability makes him a front of the rotation horse and the most proven arm of the three men mentioned here.

Chris Archer | Tampa Bay Rays | Under team control through: 2021

For all intents and purposes, Chris Archer had the same season as David Price in 2016, though the run support manifested itself in the win-loss column. While Price had 5.6 runs per game to work with (5th best in MLB) and went 17-9, Archer received just 3.4 RPG (70th out of 74 qualified starters in MLB) and was saddled with a 9-19 record. This is yet another illustration of how a pitcher’s record is oftentimes misleading. What’s not misleading, however? The fact that Archer, 28, is one of the finest strikeout pitchers in baseball. He was right there again in 2016, fanning 233 (tied with Sale for second in AL) and averaging 10.4 K/9 IP.

Coming into the season as a Cy Young candidate, the most notable difference in Archer’s 2016 results can be found in the home run column. He allowed 30 homers in 201 innings, a statline that ballooned across baseball as home runs were up 15 percent league-wide over 2015. After posting a 4-12 record with a 4.66 ERA in 19 starts before the All-Star break, Archer’s season improved markedly in the second half. He closed the year with numbers in line with his previous two campaigns, posting a 3.25 ERA in his final 14 starts. Whatever the reason for his early woes, Archer seemed to right the ship down the stretch and would be a welcome addition for any club.

Signed to a 6-year extension by Tampa Bay prior to 2014, Archer could remain under club control through 2021 if both of his team options are picked up. He’s inked to perhaps the best contract for any young starter in baseball, making a total of $19 million over the next three seasons ($4.9 million in 2017, $6.4 million in 2018 and $7.7 million in 2019). Archer’s pair of option years are team-friendly as well, at $9 million for 2020 ($1.75 million buy-out) and $11 million for 2021 (with just a $250,000 buy-out). It’s worth noting that Archer offers five years of team control for basically the same price of Sale’s three years of control. Given his talent and extremely affordable contract that includes up to five years of team control, the price tag Tampa Bay places on any trade for Archer would be high. With a stable of young, controllable starting pitchers, the time for the Rays to deal their ace for a big return could be nigh.

Sonny Gray | Oakland Athletics | Under team control through: 2019

Sonny Gray, 27, was fast becoming one of the top young pitchers in the American League, but ran into some trouble in 2016. Unfortunately, injury kept Gray from the kind strong finish that helped Archer allay some fears about his overall performance. Though he was able to return to the mound briefly in late September, Gray will enter 2017 attempting to bounce back from the first prolonged struggles in an otherwise sparkling career.

Two stints on the disabled list were at least partly to blame for Gray’s 5.69 ERA in 22 starts. A trapezius strain in late May was the first setback, followed by inflammation in his right elbow and forearm which put him on the shelf for nearly two months in August. Given the paucity of talented young starters on the free agent market, it could be the ideal time for Oakland to follow what feels like protocol at this point and deal away another young talent before he becomes expensive. Unlike Sale or Archer, Gray heads into his arbitration years. Thus, while he is under team control for the next three seasons, the cost is less certain.

It’s also worth noting that Gray did not have much luck on his side in 2016, with opponents posting a .319 batting average on balls put in play against him. Gray also saw a dip in velocity, likely related to his arm ailments and a probable cause for fewer swinging strikes last season. Like Archer, Gray had trouble keeping the ball in the park for the first time in his career. He allowed 18 home runs in just 117 innings, which was double his career rate. Prior to Gray’s subpar season, he was a 14-game winner in consecutive seasons while throwing at least 200 innings. His 2015 season was an All-Star campaign that included a third-place finish for the Cy Young Award. While it’s natural to question his future after an injury-riddled season, Gray could very well return to form in 2017. That makes him worth a look at the very least.

The Takeaway:

These three are not the only names that could be available or worth consideration. Atlanta will seek to remain creative when it comes to finding trade partners and brokering deals. The Braves have been stockpiling young pitchers throughout the process of rebuilding, a strategy that should provide them with the currency needed to acquire some missing pieces. Any trade Atlanta takes part in figures to be built around those young arms, but will likely require a position player component as well. Those are of a much more limited quantity. One thing is certain, the price will be high to add a young, controllable top of the rotation arm.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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