Over the weekend, Chris Sale decided that he really didn’t want to wear the White Sox’ throwback uniforms, believing they were too heavy to pitch in and might impact the team’s performance. Unhappy with the thought of having to wear them anyway, Sale went all Edward Scissorhands on the jerseys, forcing the organization to wear a uniform with which he was more comfortable; as a result, Sale was sent home from the clubhouse and suspended five days for insubordination.
The timing was particularly poor for the White Sox, who had just started listening to offers for their ace, realizing that they probably aren’t going to make a second-half run that would justify the team’s win-now moves over the last 18 months. Instead of showing scouts why he is still one of the best left-handed starters in baseball, Sale reminded everyone that he has a bit of a temper, lashing out at the organization for the second time this year; he was one of the most vocal critics in the Drake LaRoche matter during spring training.
In the aftermath of the kerfuffle, I’ve seen a few comments about Sale’s outburst reducing the White Sox’ leverage, opening the door for other teams to swoop in and pick him up at a discount. But thankfully for Rick Hahn, I don’t expect that the weekend drama will have any real effect on the kinds of offers the Sox will be fielding for Sale this week, because in baseball (as in most markets), leverage is much more about a player’s value to a potential buyer than to the seller. Even if Sale came out and demanded a trade this week, the price the White Sox could extract from opposing teams probably wouldn’t change.
When the concept of leverage is discussed in baseball trade terms, it’s often framed from the perspective of the seller. For instance, Player A is a free agent in a couple of months, so Non-Contending Team B has to trade him before they lose him for just a compensation pick this winter, and thus they’ll take less than if they had him under control for future years and could keep him for themselves. While that’s a true statement, that’s also not really how market pricing works.
In reality, prices are set by the buyers, not the sellers, and Sale’s relationship with the White Sox front office has almost no bearing on the calculations buyers will do to figure out what they should pay to acquire him. If you’re the Red Sox, Rangers or the Dodgers, or any other team kicking the tires on Sale, there’s only a minimal difference between the White Sox keeping Sale and trading him to another team; in both cases, the White Sox’ leverage in negotiations with that team is that they don’t get to have Sale in their rotation; which other rotation he’s in, whether it’s Chicago’s or some other team, is of less consequence.
As long as there are multiple interested buyers, the desire of the seller to make a move is of minimal consequence to the sale price. Even if both the Dodgers and Red Sox called the White Sox on Sunday and tried to buy low on Sale after the jersey destruction incident, all the White Sox have to do is inform each party that there are other bidders in the picture, and as long as that’s a credible claim, both teams should then rationally improve their low-ball offers up to the point at which they believe they’d still be better off making the deal than letting him go elsewhere. Either team would be foolish to stand pat with a 75-cents-on-the-dollar offer if they suspected another team was offering 80-cents-on-the-dollar. Getting Sale for even 99-cents-on-the-dollar is a better outcome for their team than letting him go elsewhere, after all.
And we can see how this works in our own day-to-day lives. When you go the grocery store, the retailer doesn’t try to convince you that if you don’t buy their gallon of milk, they’ll just have their employees drink it instead. In fact, they just slap expiration dates right on the milk cartons, which is the dairy equivalent of being designated for assignment. The leverage the store holds over you has nothing to do with the milk’s utility to themselves, but instead, entirely to do with its utility to you, and the fact that if you don’t buy that particular gallon of milk, someone else will. As long as there are people demanding milk, the store will set a price that reflects the market price that people will pay for it.
Now, that isn’t to say that a player’s price is never influenced by that player’s value to the seller. If there aren’t multiple interested buyers, then the only leverage the seller has left is the threat of keeping the player, essentially setting themselves up as a second “buyer” of the player. But if you have an aging veteran heading towards free agency playing on a non-contender, the single buyer may realize that’s not a credible alternative option, and that the seller would accept whatever price the lone buyer is offering. At that point, the seller really would lose leverage if the player demanded a trade, because there wouldn’t be an alternative to force the buyer to up their bid.
But as long as there are two or more interested buyers, a team’s desire to retain a player is of minimal importance to the price the buyers should pay. So as long as Chris Sale can still pitch effectively, he can basically say whatever he wants about the team’s jerseys, their kid-in-the-clubhouse policies, or anything else about the organization. He could call a press conference and say he won’t pitch for the White Sox again. As long as the Red Sox, Rangers and Dodgers think those issues would die in Chicago and wouldn’t carry over to his performance after changing organizations, then his value to those teams remains essentially unchanged. And they’d bid accordingly, topping each other’s offers until the best deal on the table reflected the market price for Sale’s services.
Of course, player actions certainly can influence their trade value. Aroldis Chapman dramatically reduced the demand for his services this winter with his domestic-violence incident, and the Yankees were able to get him for next to nothing because a lot of interested parties walked away. So if Sale did something that caused there to be fewer interested buyers, then yeah, that would do real damage to the kind of return the White Sox could get. He probably can’t call a press conference and say that the Red Sox and Dodgers suck, and that he would only pitch for the Rangers. That would definitely hurt his trade value.
But as long as he doesn’t drive buyers away, his relationship with the White Sox is mostly immaterial to the price for which the White Sox can ask. It absolutely could have an effect on the team’s willingness to make a deal, but the White Sox shouldn’t have to take a reduced package of talent just because of this weekend’s drama. And when you see what a half season of Aroldis Chapman just cost, they’re definitely not going to be offering anyone a discount on three and a half years of an elite starting pitcher.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.