Following a season in which they lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in five years, the Washington Nationals needed a splash in the 2016-17 offseason. Their roster was already among the best in the sport, but an opportunity presented itself when the Chicago White Sox made ace Chris Sale available on the trade market.
The Nats, typically stingy with their prospects, reportedly proposed a trade that included two top farmhands in Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles — among two others. They ultimately lost out to the Boston Red Sox, who shipped a package of four prospects that included Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech.
The Washington Post reported that Washington’s unwillingness to part ways with Trea Turner — who’d just finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting — was the ultimate deal breaker that allowed Boston to acquire the prized left-hander.
“There’s always that point where you pull the trigger or you back out,” Rizzo told The Post. “We decided the price was too rich for us, and we didn’t get the player.”
In the two seasons since the trade, Sale has been nothing short of one of the best pitchers in baseball. He struck out 308 hitters en route to finishing second in AL Cy Young voting last season, and figures to be right in the mix again this year with an AL-leading 1.97 ERA.
Turner hasn’t lived up the numbers he posted in his rookie season, but has still been a valuable shortstop both with the bat and the glove. Of course, his most valuable asset has been his legs. Turner is one of only three players with at least 80 stolen bases since the start of last season, trailing only Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton.
Based on the players Boston gave up in the deal, it’s reasonable to assume Washington would’ve had to part ways with Turner, one of either Giolito or Robles, and two other mid-level prospects. Giolito was the more highly rated prospect at the time, and considering the team’s willingness to trade him in the Adam Eaton deal, it’s more likely than not that he would’ve been dealt over Robles.
To put things lightly, Giolito has been a bust so far in his career. In 29 starts this season, the former first-round pick has a 5.76 ERA and has allowed both the most earned runs (102) and walks (81) in the American League. Robles has yet to make an extended stay at the MLB level but is now regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball.
The most defining factor of this deal wasn’t Sale’s abilities, but the money owed to him. Signed to a team-friendly extension, Sale was owed just $24.5 million from 2017-18 with a $13.5 million team option for 2019 that included a $1 million buyout. For comparison, the Nats paid Matt Wieters just $3.5 million less than they would’ve given Sale over the past two years.
With Sale in the fold, the Nationals would’ve likely bumped Joe Ross, who had a 5.01 ERA in 13 starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery, to the struggling bullpen. Wieters and his .641 OPS as a National never would’ve graced their roster. The catcher, shortstop and center field positions would’ve been glaring question marks, but Jonathan Lucroy was available at the trade deadline, infielders Stephen Drew and Howie Kendrick were both acquired after the Nats would’ve gotten Sale and Michael Taylor started in center anyway when Eaton went down.
What this all boils down to, however, is whether six years of Turner and seven years of Giolito are worth three years of Sale. Since the trade, Turner has been worth 6.9 fWAR, Giolito sits at 0.2 and Sale has a sparkling 13.8. While hindsight is always 20/20, the trade would’ve certainly made the team much better.
At the time, parting ways with Turner would’ve been a tough pill to swallow. Mike Rizzo and Co. pulled off a blockbuster deal to acquire him in the first place with the expectation that he was the Nats’ shortstop of the future once Ian Desmond departed via free agency. His value had never been higher, and probably hasn’t been as high since.
The verdict has yet to be decided, as Giolito still has loads of potential and could turn things around over the next few years while Turner might become one of the most prolific base stealers in history if he keeps up his current pace.
But with players like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez approaching free agency, Max Scherzer racing Father Time and both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg playing in their primes, the Nationals were in win-now mode. Add in Sale to the mix, and all we’re left with is wondering what could’ve been.