ATLANTA -- The Chicago White Sox, looking to start a rebuilding phase, have said they'll listen on any player on their roster with three or fewer years of team control remaining, including Chris Sale.
The Braves, nearing what they hope will be the final stage of their own rebuild, recently signed veteran right-handers R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon to one-year deals, are opening a new ballpark in 2017 and -- most importantly -- have stockpiled the kind of MLB-ready or near-ready prospects it will take to land the ace left-hander.
And so it stands to reason, as MLB Network's Jon Heyman is reporting, that the Braves are showing strong interest in a deal for Sale, who is owed a reasonable $38 million over the next three seasons. Sale, 27, has produced a 3.04 ERA over 148 starts since becoming a mainstay in Chicago's rotation during the 2012 season. In 2016, he posted a 17-10 record with a 3.34 ERA -- including an MLB-best six complete games -- while striking out 233 over 226 2/3 innings.
The Braves surprised down the stretch of the 2016 season, going 30-20 in their final 50 games as the young talent started to deliver on its promise. The club has done its due diligence on other potentially available starting pitchers -- asking about the Rays' Chris Archer and the A's Sonny Gray -- as it seeks to solidify its rotation around Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Dickey and Colon.
If the White Sox were to trade Sale, they likely would seek a return that would include at least four players who are, or are close to, Major League ready. Their needs are right up the middle -- catching, starting pitching, middle infield and center field.
While the Braves do not have catching to deal, they have an abundance of arms and the option to trade either of their top two center fielders -- Ender Inciarte, a 2016 Gold Glove Award winner and valuable leadoff hitter, or Mallex Smith, who tasted some big league success before fracturing his thumb in June.
The Braves are reluctant to trade Inciarte, who is under team control through the 2020 season, but his inclusion in a deal might lessen the value of pitching prospects that would need to be included in any package. And the Braves do have arms to deal -- from Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler, both of whom made big league starts in 2016, to top prospects Sean Newcomb, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Max Fried.
The recent additions of Dickey and Colon give the Braves the ability to deal one or two of their young arms, if need be. The club would still have plenty of pitching depth, and those prospects would have yet another year to develop.
But in a Sale deal, the Sox likely have their eye on middle infielder Ozzie Albies, who -- along with Newcomb -- is among MLBPipeline.com's top 50 overall prospects. The switch-hitting Albies suffered an elbow fracture in September but is expected to make a full recovery. The Braves no doubt envision him as the second part of a dynamic middle infield duo with shortstop Dansby Swanson. The Sox probably see the same thing with their own shorstop, Tim Anderson.
The Braves will be far from the only suitors for Sale, however. The Dodgers, Rangers and Red Sox, all with deep farm systems of their own, are expected to be among the teams monitoring the market for Sale, a five-time All-Star. The Rangers have made starting pitching a priority this offseason and went hard after him at the Trade Deadline in July.
Sale has made it clear he would prefer to remain with the White Sox despite a couple well-publicized disagreements with management over the past year. But at this point, his immediate future will be determined by the level of demand the Braves, Dodgers, Red Sox and other teams show in attempt to trade for a true ace amid a thin free-agent market for starting pitchers.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.