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The White Sox should not trade Dylan Cease to Atlanta

by Nik Gaur

With the annual Winter Meetings underway, trade rumors concerning Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease have increased. National reporters such as Jon Morosi, Bob Nightengale, and Ken Rosenthal have consistently noted Chicago’s willingness to deal Cease, and the common trend between the reports is that the Atlanta Braves are among the most interested teams.

The White Sox recently made a trade with Atlanta, sending Aaron Bummer for a mix of five minor leaguers and depth pieces. The interest in Cease also makes a lot of sense, considering he is under team control for two more seasons (arbitration) likely at around $25 million total/~$12.5 million on average. For reference, Lance Lynn, who turns 37 years old in May and is coming off the worst season of his career, recently signed with the Cardinals and will receive $11 million next year. In other words, $12.5 million/year for a starting pitcher is close to the bare minimum, and that is without factoring in Cease’s performance and untapped potential.

While Cease’s 2022 season was more impressive than 2023, his results last season were somewhat flukey. His ERA skyrocketed from 2.20 to 4.58, but his peripherals suggest that the same pitcher who finished second in AL Cy Young voting in 2022 still exists now. (And if you need proof that players with strong peripherals/underlying metrics but poor ERAs/traditional statistics indeed have trade value, consider that Aaron Bummer [6.79 ERA in 2023] had positive trade value.)

Whether teams are expecting some form of 2021-2023 Cease, or believe that he has further untapped potential that could be reached via tweaks to his mechanics/pitch mix, etc. is another discussion. But considering the affordability relative to the market and the consistency of Cease’s metrics over the last three seasons, it is obvious that the price to acquire Cease should be very high. He may not quite be at Chris Sale‘s level of trade value at the time of the December 2016 deal with the Red Sox, as Sale had three (versus two) years of team control and at pre-determined salaries. But Cease should absolutely return two top-100 prospects as well as one or two interesting prospects from a team’s top 30 (exact ranking dependent on the nature of the headlining pieces).

Many teams need starting pitching and could offer such a package. The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, have a bevy of position player prospects in the high minors that are blocked by current MLB talent. A package headlined by Colton Cowser or Heston Kjerstad, for instance, would be intriguing since it could be filled out in a variety of different ways given the organization’s prospect depth.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, too, are aggressively pursuing starting pitching and have a strong farm system headlined by a mix of power pitchers and hitters with great on-base skills. While not as top-heavy as Baltimore’s farm, a more depth-centric package from the Dodgers that includes players such as Nick Frasso, Andy Pages, Jorbit Vivas, or Kyle Hurt could be enticing for the White Sox.

The same exercise can be carried out for several different teams. However, despite being one of the most aggressive teams in pursuit of Cease, it is difficult to put together a potential package from Atlanta that matches Cease’s perceived value while also making sense for both teams. In other words, to afford Dylan Cease, Atlanta would either need to include players from the current MLB roster (which makes little sense for a World Series contender) or fleece Chris Getz and the White Sox.

Atlanta’s farm is very pitching-heavy, which is fine — the return for Cease in terms of the ratio of pitchers to position players is mainly a matter of personal preference. The problem is that the system lacks the high-end talent necessary to move the needle for the White Sox. A deal would essentially have to include A.J. Smith-Shawver as the headliner, as he is the only consensus top-100 prospect in Atlanta’s system (#53 on MLB Pipeline).

Smith-Shawver is a solid prospect, but he is not without a major flaw. MLB Pipeline grades his control at a 45 on the 20-80 scale, while Fangraphs places his command at a 35 presently with the potential to get to 55. While walks are not the only drawback of poor control/command, it is easy to understand these grades considering Smith-Shawver’s high walk rates in the minor leagues (15.2% walk rate in AAA last season, granted at just 20 years old).

While a potential headliner for Cease, Smith-Shawver’s long-term control/command concerns make him far from a sure thing and likely warrant stronger secondary pieces compared to headliners from other organizations. Atlanta does have a borderline top-100 prospect in Hurston Waldrep, as well as plenty of intriguing pitchers in the lower minors — Spencer Schwellenbach, Owen Murphy, Cade Kuehler, JR Ritchie, and others.

Again, while fine prospects, there is considerable risk here relative to what other systems can offer. These pitchers for the most part either struggle with command, or they are so far away from reaching MLB that the old “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect” adage comes to mind. Trading Cease for a package of pitchers could make sense, but ideally, the White Sox would receive at least a couple of players that could confidently be slotted into a potential future rotation or lineup. Atlanta has some high-ceiling pitchers, but they either carry significant reliever risk or are too far away from MLB to reasonably project.

Other teams — especially the Dodgers — have players that also fit this description (either major control/command red flags or far away from MLB). But the difference between these teams and Atlanta is that other systems possess the mix of prospect depth and high-upside talent to offer a more intriguing package for a player with such high trade value. Once you get past Atlanta’s stable of pitching prospects, you are forced to consider players way down in rookie ball, or former prospects like Vaughn Grissom who themselves carry red flags (for Grissom, it’s a lack of defensive stability/potential move to the outfield, lack of power, etc.).

There are many reasons why reporters would consistently mention Atlanta as a leader in the Dylan Cease trade negotiations. Perhaps they are simply the most aggressive (or desperate) suitor. Maybe the White Sox know this and are using it as leverage to entice other teams to improve their offers. Or, of course, it is possible that Chris Getz is enamored with some of Atlanta’s pitchers and truly believes that an offer including Smith-Shawver, Waldrep, etc. is better than anything else other organizations could offer. (If that is the case, it would be fair to question his judgment and willingness to trade a highly coveted asset for such a risky package.)

Either way, Atlanta continues to be mentioned in trade rumors for Dylan Cease, and it is nonetheless very difficult to put together a package of players that the White Sox should consider sufficient for two cost-controlled years of a frontline starter in Cease. Once free agent dominoes begin to fall, other teams will ideally become more interested in Cease and improve their offers. Until then, trading Cease to a team with such a barren farm system makes little sense, especially when the standout prospects in question are so homogeneous.

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Featured Photo: © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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