The rumor mill continues to produce intriguing possibilities as Major League Baseball's offseason draws ever closer to its annual Winter Meetings (scheduled to begin on Sunday, Dec. 3). Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease appears to be one of the most popular names on the trade market, having already been connected publicly to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, among other teams whose interest has remained cloaked. In fact, MLB Network's Jon Morosi said Wednesday that talks "have intensified" and that a deal could be made even before the Winter Meetings.
That two of MLB's top teams have inquired on Cease should qualify as little surprise -- after all, he's only a season removed from a second-place finish in American League Cy Young Award voting. Nevertheless, this is the time of the year when the combination of cold temperatures and early sunsets can summon one's innermost existential dread. Rather than deal with those feelings in an appropriate setting or a healthy manner, we'd prefer to occupy ourselves by breaking down why some players make for attractive additions.
Below, then, we've highlighted three aspects of Cease's game that have caught the attention of other clubs, including his top-notch arsenal and the possibility that his game has proverbial chicken remaining on the bone.
1. Elite stuff
Let's start with a simple assertion. If you want to be a frontline starter in this day and age, you have to miss bats. Cease does. He ranks 10th in strikeout percentage among the 104 pitchers to throw at least 400 frames since 2021. It's not hard to figure out how or why he's been able to rack up strikeouts.
Cease's arsenal features two well-above-average pitches. His fastball clocked in at 95.6 mph last season, and featured nearly 19 inches of induced vertical break. For those new to the IVB metric, that's a fancy way of writing that his heater has a lot of "rising" action to it.
For some perspective on how rare that combination of velocity and rise is, here's a complete list of the other starting pitchers (min. 10 starts) whose fastballs averaged at least 95 mph and 18 or more inches of IVB in 2023:
Cease's fastball, then, possesses some impressive traits. It's not his best pitch, however. That designation goes to his slider, which has generated at least 40% whiffs in each of the last three seasons. Opponents batted .216 against it last season, and that represented the worst mark of his career on that pitch.
It used to be that pitchers needed more than two offerings to be thought of as starters, let alone Cy Young Award candidates. That's no longer the case. Modern teams are content to trot out a starter who has two top-notch offerings they can spam against the opposition. Cease certainly fits the era in that respect. Even so, he does have two other pitches he threw less than 20% of the time in 2023: a low-80s knuckle curveball and a seldom-used changeup that features more than 20 mph of separation from his fastball.
2. Room to grow?
We'll admit that this sounds like a silly idea. Cease is, again, just a season removed from being crowned the second-best pitcher in the AL. He's nearing his 28th birthday and he's amassed a 113 ERA+ in 658 career innings. He is and has been a pretty good pitcher for a while. His game has often been haunted by the idea that he could be even better if his circumstances were different. We suspect that other teams are thinking the same thoughts this winter, just as they entertained similar notions a few winters ago about Zack Wheeler.
There are countless ways that a change of scenery can beget performance improvements. Some of it can be technology-based -- perhaps there's something in Cease's biomechanical output that can be improved upon, thereby resulting in command gains -- and some of it can be data- or technique-focused -- the Rays have had success by having their catchers give the same target, over the middle of the plate, on every pitch. It could also be a matter of resources. The Dodgers are known to have a larger headcount that is more capable of working with players on individualized gameplans.
Cease may have already optimized his pitch mix by throwing close to one slider for every fastball the past few seasons. Still, there are some obvious parts of his game that a new club might work with him toward improving. Without getting too far in the weeds, let's touch on one of those areas of potential growth.
We noted that Cease has an outstanding slider, but he throws it in the zone just 37% of the time. In 2023, the league-average rate for a starting pitcher was 45.2%. Cease has gotten along just fine without filling up the zone with his slider, but if he could find a way to locate it more often for called strikes, he would stand to benefit in multiple respects: 1) presumably by lowering his walk rate (since he would fall behind less often) and 2) keeping batters from sitting on his fastball (since it's the main pitch he throws for strikes).
Developing the feel to locate a breaking ball within the zone isn't easy -- if it was, Cease would've done it by now. Different teams have different instructions and strategies for helping their pitchers learn these skills. Perhaps a different club would be able to unlock that aspect of Cease's game. Given his innate qualities, that's a scary possibility for the rest of the league.
3. The economics
We'll end on an obvious note. Cease has two seasons remaining of team control, making him more than a rental acquisition. He's also going to make significantly less money in those two seasons than he would as a free agent, or than pitchers who -- to be kind -- are not likely to perform at his level.
To demonstrate what we're talking about, consider that Cease is projected to make $8.8 million next season through arbitration, according to Matt Swartz's model at MLB Trade Rumors. Say he gets that exact amount, then receives a healthy bump in his final arbitration-eligible season, all the way up to the $15.1 million that Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes is expected to take home this upcoming year. That works out to about $24 million for two years.
Now, take a look at the free-agent starting pitchers signed this winter, and how their performance and pay aligns with Cease's proposed terms:
This should be a self-evident point -- there's a reason teams are always thirsting for cost-controlled players -- but a club who wants to add a potential frontline starter this winter and have money to spend elsewhere would be wise to chase after Cease. There is an opportunity cost to think about in the form of prospects -- the White Sox are likely to demand substantive minor-league talent -- and yet that's the cost of adding impact talent. It seldom comes cheap. Either you give up good youngsters or you hand out a massive contract.
Who knows, when it comes to Cease, a team might be willing to do both -- first to acquire his services, and then to keep him around town beyond winter 2025.