Sale is an outstanding bargain for White Sox
South Siders ace's contract is much more team-friendly than Kershaw's in LA
He isn't Clayton Kershaw. No pitcher since post-free agency Greg Maddux has been as consistently good as Kershaw while piling up the innings.
You'd be asking for a cyber-beating to compare any pitcher to Kershaw. But there is a guy who got to the big leagues a little bit later, is younger and has been a reasonable facsimile. He's on the short list of pitchers who are truly must-watch TV, and if he and Kershaw were ever on the trade market at the same time, he'd be the guy in the most demand.
When it was reported Wednesday that the 25-year-old Kershaw had agreed to a record seven-year, $215 million contract, the White Sox might have been the one team in the Majors that felt better than the Dodgers. That's because they control the rights to Chris Sale for, at most, $59 million over seven years, with only $32.5 million guaranteed.
This isn't just a great contract. It's one that you build a team around, and that's exactly what White Sox general manager Rick Hahn is doing.
Hahn put together the contract extension last March, buying out three years of salary arbitration and three of free agency. Sale, who was about to turn 24 and had been signed for $600,000, got financial security for himself and his young family.
And when the White Sox were shockingly bad last season, losing 99 games behind an over-the-hill lineup, Hahn knew he had one huge stud he could count on. He has since done a very good job of trading older talent for young talent, and he won a high-stakes bidding war for Cuban slugger Jose Abreu.
Like Sale, Abreu is under contract through 2019. Sale's contract gave him a $250,000 bump to $850,000 last season, and the deal will pay him $3.5 million this year, $6 million in 2015, $9.15 million in '16 and $12 million in '17. The following two seasons are club options for $12.5 million and $13.5 million, with $1 million in buyouts and elevators that could add $2.5 million if he wins a Cy Young Award.
To call this a bargain in the current market is to call the Peyton Manning signing a pretty good move for the Denver Broncos.
Sale, who was a relief pitcher his first two years in the big leagues, had been a starter for only one season when he signed his contract. Kershaw's deal was the result of five-plus seasons as a starter. But over the past two years, the ace pitchers have produced similar results.
Kershaw had an edge because of his workload (463 2/3 innings, compared to 406 1/3 for Sale) and being slightly more difficult to hit (.211 opponents' batting average, compared to Sale's .226), but Sale actually walked fewer hitters and had more strikeouts per nine innings. Sale's 2.97 career ERA has come in a hitter's league and hitter's park.
Advanced metrics show that Kershaw's 2013 season -- his age-25 season -- was his best yet, with a WAR of 7.8. It had been 6.5 and 6.2 in his age-23 and age-24 seasons, when Sale turned in WARs of 5.9 and 6.9.
There was a time when Sale was viewed skeptically because of his slight build and his violent delivery from a low three-quarters arm slot. But what he has proven to be is incredibly tough, both physically and mentally.
There's still distance to cover between him and where Kershaw will stand on the other side of the Camelback Ranch complex in Arizona this spring. But here's a stunning comparison between the two pitchers.
When you break down their careers by 200-inning chunks, Sale has returned an average WAR of 6.52, compared to 5.46 for Kershaw. The difference is that while Kershaw took some lumps as a 20-year-old rookie, Sale has never been anything except excellent.
There was a brief period of silliness this winter when rumors went around that the White Sox were making Sale available for trades. They never were, but it sure would be fun to see what they could get if they did, as he's a state-of-the-art starter controlled for six years at an average annual value of $8.07 million in a market where the Dodgers are paying $30.7 million AAV for that commodity.
Kershaw's contract is the biggest in baseball, but Sale's might be the best, at least from the team's perspective.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.