The Chicago Cubs are the team to beat in the National League. That was true before they busted their 108-year championship drought and it’s certainly true now.

Here’s the thing about being the team to beat, though: Everyone wants to beat you.

Like, say, the Washington Nationals.

The Nats are the defending NL East champs. They pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to five games in the division series, despite losing All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos and co-ace Stephen Strasburg to injury. They’re within shouting distance of Senior Circuit supremacy.

Here’s an intriguing thought exercise: Would a trade for Chicago White Sox stud Chris Sale put them in position to threaten the Cubs’ nascent reign?

The Nats have kicked the tires on Sale, per USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. Why not? With a comically weak free-agent class, he could be the winter’s biggest prize if he’s moved.

A 27-year-old five-time All-Star, Sale has eclipsed 200 strikeouts in each of the last four seasons and thrown more than 200 innings in three of them. He’s averaged 10.04 strikeouts per nine innings since his debut in 2010, the sixth-highest total among active pitchers. 

He’s under contract for the next three seasons, for $12 million in 2017, a $12.5 million team option in 2018 and a $13.5 million team option in 2019, a relative bargain.

He’ll also cost a lot in trade, as we’ll get into shortly. For now, back to the original question: Could adding Sale push Washington past Chicago?

He’d join a rotation already fronted by NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Strasburg, forming a formidable top three.

Here, let’s stack their 2016 stats next to each other for fun:

Add Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA, 210 innings, 172 strikeouts) and you’d be looking at one of the deepest, most dangerous rotations in the game.

The Cubs have a strong starting corps of their own. Chicago’s top four starters—Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey—combined for 15.7 WAR by FanGraphs‘ measure

Marry Sale’s 2016 WAR to the totals for Scherzer, Strasburg and Roark, however, and you get an even more robust 17.8.

The Nationals’ bullpen ranked second in the NL with a 3.37 ERA last season, while the Cubs’ relief corps ranked fourth with a 3.56 mark. Both teams could lose the elite closers they acquired at the trade deadline—Mark Melancon from the Nationals and Aroldis Chapman from the Cubs.

The Nationals could also lose their backstop and a key offensive cog with Ramos on the market. The Cubs, likewise, need to re-sign or replace center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler, which they may have done by signing Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million pact, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune.

The Cubs’ offensive core is second to none, with NL MVP Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Addison Russell and second baseman/breakout postseason star Javier Baez leading a group that ranked second in the NL in runs (808) and OPS (.772).

The Nats counter with 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, second baseman Daniel Murphy and center fielder/speedy breakout rookie Trea Turner. They also hit more home runs than the Cubs in 2016 (203 to 199) and stole more bases (121 to 66). 

The chasm isn’t that wide, in other words. One seismic move could edge Washington over the top. 

The same could be said for other NL contenders, including the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers need starting pitching and a bat or two, though they may be shackled by financial constraints. The Giants need to add some thump to their lineup and bolster a bullpen that was their undoing last season.

The New York Mets, meanwhile, made the biggest move of the offseason thus far, re-upping outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for four years and $110 million, per Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan

That’s another reason for the Nats to be aggressive. The Mets, recall, won the division and the NL pennant in 2015 and could be a formidable opponent in 2017 if their rotation bounces back to health.

What would Washington have to surrender for Sale? The short answer: a ton.

Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal opined, correctly, that it’s “virtually impossible to imagine the Nationals parting with Turner.”

However, Rosenthal added, “they could entice the White Sox with others from their deep, talented system. Start with right-handers Reynaldo Lopez and Erick Fedde and outfielder Victor Robles, and take it from there.”

Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter ranked Robles, Lopez and Fedde the Nats‘ No. 2, 3 and 4 prospects, respectively. They all rank among the game’s top 100 prospects, per—Robles at No. 10, Lopez at No. 37 and Fedde at No. 75. 

That package would sting, and it might not be enough. The Sox could hold out for Turner, or right-hander and No. 1 prospect Lucas Giolito.

This is the time for the Nats to get bold, though. They’ve won three division titles in five years but never advanced to the National League Championship Series, let alone the big October dance.

Close your eyes and picture that rotation again: Scherzer, Sale, Strasburg and Roark.

“Imagine that in the playoffs,” an unnamed executive said, per Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. “And Sale being there would completely take the pressure off Strasburg.”

That’s a salient point. Talented as Strasburg is, he’s got a checkered injury history. With Sale in the fold, he could shine as the best No. 3 starter in the game.

The Cubs are the team to beat in the NL, and a safe bet to become baseball’s first repeat champions since the 2000 New York Yankees.

The Nationals have a chance to beat them, however, and Sale could be their cudgel. 

He’d be an expensive one. He’d also be worth it.


All statistics courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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