Why would the White Sox make this trade? Let’s dig in.
No, I’m not kidding.
Padres’ prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., who was ranked as the game’s No. 2 prospect by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, was indeed once traded for a player who went on to have the worst season by a qualified starting pitcher in five years. As of this writing, no pitcher since has been as bad as Shields was in 2016.
Here at Beyond the Box Score, we’re famous for our Trade Retrospectives, which were actually started by Spencer Bingol, who is now working for the Red Sox. Luis Torres has been doing many of the recent Trade Retrospectives, and they have been superb. I highly recommend them.
I wrote all three of those long sentences just to say: this piece is not a Trade Retrospective. It’s a Trade Mid-ro-spective? A Trade Half-Look-Spective? A Midway Respective? Clearly, I was not gifted with the skill of coming up with catchy names. Nonetheless, this piece is not a Trade Retrospective because Tatis has yet to appear in a major league game, and it would not be fair to judge a trade without seeing each piece’s fate coming to fruition.
Regardless, the trade looks like it will ultimately be a win for the Padres. As I mentioned above, Shields was traded in the midst of one of the worst campaigns by a starting pitcher in recent memory. His next two seasons with the White Sox weren’t great either, going 12-23 with a 4.78 ERA, 257 strikeouts and 131 walks in 321 2⁄3 innings. He was worth -1.1 fWAR in his two-plus seasons with the White Sox, becoming a free agent at the end of the 2018 season. He has yet to find a new organization for 2019.
In order to get anything of value in return, the Padres did have to pay a fairly large portion of Shields’ salary in the trade. Shields made $65 million from 2016 to 2018, $38 million of which was on the Padres’ tab. Even as the Padres dished out large sums of money to a player who was no longer in their organization, they remained profitable; in 2018, while the Padres were still paying Shields $11 million, the team brought in $26 million in operating income, ranking 15th in the league. So, at a minimum, it’s not like the Padres were forced into the red because of Shields’ large contract, either.
The White Sox paid Shields the remaining $27 million over the past three years. A three-year, $27 million contract isn’t awful for a starting pitcher, especially in the old, functioning market where one WAR was worth about $8 million. Still, to put it lightly, Shields didn’t recoup the value with his performance. (Good on him, though, for earning his money. While he certainly did not live up to the expectations of the contract, it is laudable that he received his piece of the baseball revenue pie.)
You may be asking though: why on Earth would the White Sox make such a trade? Sometimes, teams acquire bad contracts in order to “buy prospects.” Bad teams will often take on a team’s dead money alongside a prospect in order to improve the farm system and plan for the future. This strategy has been done before, and it will likely be done again.
That wasn’t the case in this trade, though. In fact, entire deal looked like this:
In this case, the White Sox were acquiring Shields for all intents and purposes of having him produce value at the big league level. Per Baseball-Reference, the trade was finalized on June 4, 2016. Even though the 2016 White Sox went 78-84 and finished in 4th in the AL Central, they were still right in the thick of the race at the time of this trade. On that date specifically, Chicago was 29-27, just two games back in the division. Just three weeks prior, the team was 24-13 and up five games.
Unfortunately for them, the team went 49-57 from June 5 on. They’ve been fully committed to their rebuild since. I respect the White Sox for trying to turn a hot start into something tangible, but unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out.
Hindsight is 20/20, though. At the time of the trade, Tatis was not a heralded prospect. The White Sox had just signed him the previous summer, and he had yet to appear in a game in their organization. He ranked 30th on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 30 international prospects and signed for $700,000. Even the Padres probably didn’t view Tatis as much more than a lottery ticket at the time; after all, it’s incredibly hard to project the future of a 17-year-old with no professional baseball experience.
Sometimes, though, lottery tickets do hit. Tatis became a consensus top-10 prospect in just two seasons, and now, he’s behind just Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the best prospect in baseball.
The Padres’ future looks incredibly bright. Some of this excitement can be attributed solely to one June trade three years ago, which netted them an outright baller.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.