After a brutal 2023 season that saw the White Sox lose 101 games and finish fourth in a weak AL Central division, change is in the air on Chicago’s south side. Newly-minted GM Chris Getz made clear earlier this month that the club is operating with no untouchables on the roster. While there’s plenty of players on the White Sox roster who could garner interest in trade, including center fielder Luis Robert Jr. and DH Eloy Jimenez, perhaps the most discussed among those names is right-hander Dylan Cease, who the club reportedly fielded calls on ahead of this year’s trade deadline.
While no deal came together back then, it’s Cease is certainly still an attractive potential trade candidate for clubs in need of a rotation upgrade. While Cease struggled badly over the last two months of the 2023 as his ERA ballooned to 4.58 on the season, the underlying metrics surrounding Cease’s performance provide more reason for optimism. After all, his 27.3% strikeout rate this season left him tied with Mariners ace Luis Castillo for the eighth-highest figure in the majors this year among qualified starters, just ahead of front-of-the-rotation starters like Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler.
While his 10.1% walk rate certainly left something to be desired, Cease’s strand rate of just 69.4% can’t be ignored as a contributing factor to his struggles in 2023. Only four pitchers (Jordan Lyles, Aaron Nola, Lance Lynn, and Miles Mikolas) had a higher percentage of their batters come around to score than Cease this season. If the sequencing of Cease’s baserunners had produced a strand rate more in line with his career mark of 74.6%, it’s reasonable to think Cease would have been far more productive in 2023, and could be in line for better fortunes in 2024.
Even accounting for his difficult 2023 season, Cease has been one of the league’s most impressive starters over the past three seasons. Since the start of the 2021 season, Cease leads all pitchers with 97 games started and clocks in at 15th with 526 2/3 innings of work over that time. Between that volume of work and Cease’s strong production (3.54 ERA, 3.40 FIP), only seven pitchers have produced more fWAR than Cease over the past three seasons: Wheeler, Cole, Nola, Kevin Gausman, Corbin Burnes, Logan Webb, and Sandy Alcantara. In addition to being a part of that elite company, Cease won’t be a free agent until after the 2025 campaign and is projected for a salary of just $8.8MM by MLBTR’s Matt Swartz next season, making him an affordable addition for even small-market clubs looking to add a front-of-the-rotation arm.
Given Cease’s affordability and multiple years of control, he figures to be an attractive alternative to an expensive multi-year deal for a front-end arm like Nola, Blake Snell, or Jordan Montgomery this offseason, particularly for clubs with significant budgetary restrictions. He’s certainly not a fit for every club, however. The A’s, Royals, Angels, Rockies and Nationals are all unlikely to contend during Cease’s remaining window of control, while some up-and-coming clubs like the Marlins, Guardians, Tigers, and Pirates have far more pressing needs on their roster that seem likely to take priority over adding a win-soon, front-end arm like Cease.
The Blue Jays, Mariners, and Brewers, meanwhile, are all teams that contended in 2023 but are much more in need of lineup upgrades than an arm to bolster the rotation, making them likely to pursue upgrades elsewhere. While teams like the Cubs, Twins, and Mets are all decent fits, the unlikelihood of a White Sox blockbuster with a division or crosstown rival (particularly the same one they acquired Cease from in 2017) and the Mets’ uncertain timeline for competitiveness make them less likely to land Cease as well, particularly in what could be such a crowded field of potential suitors. That still leaves 14 clubs that could at least plausibly have considerable interest in Cease’s services this offseason. A look at each of those teams…
- Braves: The Braves and White Sox have already gotten together on one fairly significant trade this offseason, and could make plenty of sense to do so again. With Kyle Wright out for the 2024 season and subsequently shipped off to Kansas City, the Braves are looking somewhat thin in the rotation with little certainty behind a front three of Max Fried, Spencer Strider, and Charlie Morton. An acquisition of Cease could take pressure off Morton as he enters his age-40 campaign as well as youngsters like Bryce Elder and AJ Smith-Shawver. Meanwhile, young infielder Vaughn Grissom is blocked by Ozzie Albies and Orlando Arcia up the middle in Atlanta but could immediately step into an everyday role at second base for the White Sox in 2024.
- Cardinals: The Cardinals have made it clear they’re on the hunt for starting pitching this offseason, and swinging a deal for Cease could allow them to add a quality arm at a price that wouldn’t take them out of the running for an additional arm in free agency like Nola or Sonny Gray. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have a bevy of big-league ready talent blocked at the major league level they could deal from, ranging from catching prospect Ivan Herrera to reclamation outfielder Dylan Carlson.
- Diamondbacks: The reigning NL champs could certainly do with an upgrade to their rotation in 2024, which features little certainty beyond Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Brandon Pfaadt showed flashes of untapped potential as the club’s third starter throughout the playoffs, but after posting a 5.72 ERA in 19 regular season appearances seems best suited to a back-end role until he can prove himself further. Though the Diamondbacks have shown interest in top-of-the-market NPB ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the club has given out just one nine-figure contract in its history. Cease would offer Arizona a far more affordable option to pair with Gallen at the top of the rotation, and could offer a young bat like outfielder Alek Thomas as a potential centerpiece for the deal.
- Dodgers: The Dodgers are in desperate need of rotation reinforcements with sophomore right-hander Bobby Miller and Walker Buehler in his first season post-Tommy John surgery as the club’s most reliable arms for Opening Day 2022. Though the Dodgers are among the league’s most free-spending clubs, their rumored pursuit of Shohei Ohtani and need to fill multiple spots in the starting rotation could make a trade for Cease an attractive option to fill out a spot toward the front of the club’s rotation. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have several young arms that could interest the White Sox as part of a return package, including Ryan Pepiot and Emmet Sheehan.
- Orioles: After a 101-win campaign in 2023, the Orioles figure to be more aggressive this offseason than they have in the recent past, when they’ve largely limited their additions to short-term deals for complementary players like Kyle Gibson and Adam Frazier. That being said, the trade market could be a better route for Baltimore to seek improvements than free agency; after all, club officials have avoided making commitments to substantial payroll increases and the team has a deep crop of big league ready position players who may be best utilized as trade capital, ranging from arb-eligible role players like Ramon Urias to former top prospects like Jordan Westburg. Meanwhile, the addition of Cease would give the club a quality front-end starter to pencil in alongside Grayson Rodriguez and Kyle Bradish for the club’s hypothetical 2024 playoff rotation.
- Rays: The Rays are facing an all-time high payroll in 2024 and are in desperate need of rotation upgrades following long-term injuries to Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Shane McClanahan in 2023. Cease would be an affordable option the club could bolster their rotation with, giving them additional flexibility to explore trades of right-hander Tyler Glasnow while also potentially clearing some of the club’s positional logjam, where the likes of Curtis Mead could find themselves without much playing time in 2024.
- Reds: The Reds haven’t been shy about their need for starting pitching help this offseason, and Cease makes sense for a club that regularly runs a payroll in the bottom half of the league as a potential impact arm who wouldn’t break the bank. Much like the Orioles, the Reds are deep in young infield options, with second baseman Jonathan India a prime candidate for a trade himself, to say nothing of blocked prospects like Edwin Arroyo.
Next Tier Down:
- Astros: While the Astros could certainly use pitching help this offseason after being forced to rely on rookies like Hunter Brown and JP France for much of the 2023 season, it’s fair to wonder if the club has the appetite for another pitching blockbuster just a few months after swinging a deal with the Mets to bring Justin Verlander back to Houston at the trade deadline earlier this year. What’s more, the Astros are relatively lacking in the young, big league-ready talent that the Sox might look to acquire in a Cease deal.
- Giants: The Giants are certainly in need of rotation upgrades after essentially only using Webb and veteran righty Alex Cobb as regular starting pitchers for most of the 2023 campaign. That being said, the Giants certainly have money to spend after last offseason’s failed bids for Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa. With plenty of holes to fill on the roster, San Francisco may be better suited for an aggressive pursuit of free agent starters than giving up near-term youngsters in a deal for Cease.
- Padres: San Diego’s rumored budgetary issues this offseason are well-documented at this point, and it’s possible the club could need to clear more payroll before taking on even Cease’s relatively modest $8.8MM projected salary. That being said, president of baseball operations AJ Preller is well known for his aggressiveness on the trade market, and a deal for Cease would certainly be more cost-effective than, for example, re-signing Snell to a nine-figure contract.
- Phillies: The Phillies are in need of a top-of-the-rotation arm after the departure of Nola in free agency, but re-signing him appears to be the club’s top priority this offseason. That makes Philadelphia attempting to swing a deal for Cease fairly unlikely, particularly given the club’s relative lack of big-league ready prospect talent with whom they could attempt to make a trade.
- Rangers: The reigning AL champs could certainly stand to upgrade their rotation after losing Montgomery to free agency, but much like their division rivals in Houston, the Rangers just swung a blockbuster to bring Max Scherzer to Arlington this past summer. What’s more, the club may be expecting Jacob deGrom back from Tommy John surgery sometime next year and already has a plausible five-man rotation of Scherzer, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning for Opening Day 2024.
- Red Sox: The Red Sox are clearly looking for a front-end starter to add to their rotation, and the clubs famously got together on a blockbuster deal during the 2016-17 offseason that sent Chris Sale to Boston. Despite that history, however, the Red Sox could be better off adding a long-term contract via free agency than spending prospect capital to acquire just two seasons of Cease, particularly given the club’s last-place finish in the AL East this past season.
- Yankees: Much like their archrival Red Sox, the Yankees are clearly in the market for pitching upgrades this offseason. The Yankees are also a club that could certainly benefit from a shorter-term arrangement like the one Cease would provide, given the club’s several megadeals for players like Judge, Cole, Carlos Rodon, and Giancarlo Stanton. That being said, the club is seemingly reluctant to deal young, big league ready talent like Oswald Peraza, though it’s at least feasible a deal could come together surrounding prospects further from the majors like Spencer Jones and Chase Hampton.