Most offseasons it’s the same old story. There are big free agent pitchers that sign big deals for more money than most of us will earn over the course of half our lives, and there are hitters that are looking for deals so long that when they’re over, kids who weren’t born during their tenure will be graduating eighth grade.
But this season, that’s not quite the case. This season the most talented starting pitcher on the market was likely Rich Hill, and arguably Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion were the most talked about free agent sluggers and both are still jobless though Winter Meetings have come and gone.
The story this offseason was the relief market, which is going through an interesting period of inflation. The top three free agent closers in 2016 are all now officially off the board within, promptly within one week of the close of the Meetings, and they’ve certainly set the market for position.
Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon, and Kenley Jansen are now all on risky four-to-six year deals totaling $228 million dollars. Yes, that’s a steep number for a position that fluctuates from year-to-year, sees superstars come and go faster than the weather changes in Chicago, and only offers about 60-70 innings of work per season.
But for some teams, the escalation in closers value can be good. Namely, teams that have strong relievers on good contracts. Because in trades, dollars translate to talent, and for the White Sox, that translation couldn’t come at a better time.
The rebuilding Sox have already seen a bounty of returns from just two of their major pieces over the last week, returns that included seven prospects, including the No. 1 ranked position player and pitching prospects according to MLB.com. The White Sox established their own market last week as well, and dictates what type of prospect package returns they’re seeking during this rebuild. I’ll give you a hint: they’re looking for big ones.
This is the perfect storm for the White Sox right now. All the top free agent closers are now signed to long-term deals, the market value of the closing pitcher has been set and is at an extreme high, and the White Sox still have two closer-quality relievers in their possession; one of which is on an exceptionally valuable contract (though now that the market value for closers is so high, you could even argue that both are on team friendly deals). Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s time for the White Sox to take advantage of that.
Of course, the market has taken a bit of a hit. Four teams have now effectively solved their ninth inning situation, whether it be via trade or long-term contracts. And while the Marlins and Nationals were active suitors, the latter of which the White Sox have already pilfered the farm system of just last week save for Victor Robles. Some teams just aren’t that desperate yet, and maybe won’t be before camp starts.
That doesn’t mean the market is dead though, or that the White Sox waited too long to pounce. What White Sox fans must remember is that rebuilds take time, General Manager Rick Hahn has stressed the fact that he has no interest in rushing through a teardown, meaning that there is plenty of time to let the situations that will maximize the Sox’s return marinate. For example, a team desperate at the trade deadline will likely sell off whatever the White Sox snap their fingers for if they’re contending and looking for a closer to fill a void left by injury or even just the inadequacy of their current bullpen situation.
While Robertson’s ERA was only good for 23rd best in the American League among relievers with 60 inning or more, Jones was ninth. This isn’t to discount Robertson’s efforts, he certainly had his share of struggles in 2016, but after successful knee surgery this offseason, the White Sox can hope he will return at least some of his old form and up his stock on the midseason trade market.
But let’s talk about Jones, the hidden bullpen treasure.
Jones has quite a bit of value, and he’s showing it right now. Not only has he put up sterling numbers in 2016 and most of his career, save for high home run/fly ball rate, but his contract has become is gold mine for his level of talent.
Jones is currently on a deal that takes him through the 2018 season for just $1.9 million in 2017 and $3.95 million in 2018. The contract also includes two team options, plus a mutual option in his final season of the agreement (2021) that is still only $6 million. If Jones needs an elbow operation in any of the three years, a clause in place would lower the cost of his options. Given that Jones has already undergone Tommy John surgery, that’s a bit more of a loaded “if” than it would be for a typical healthy reliever. But since his return to the mound, Jones has shown enough promise to take a gamble on a contract like this for a late-inning reliever who has proven to be solid, especially in an absurdly escalating market.
Every deal for a reliever is a risky one, but this contract comes at a bargain basement price for talent that should it stay on track, is worth three times its cost.
The question now becomes gauging the proper return for Jones’ contract as well as his level of production. Jones is somewhat of an unknown in the baseball world, mainly because he missed 16 months of action while recovering from Tommy John, and unfortunately also because he has been a piece in a bullpen for a team that’s failed to make national headlines in any flattering way during the regular season for a while.
Jones hold dual value in today’s most intriguing baseball market, and the time to capitalize on that is likely soon. Of course, the White Sox will want to carefully negotiate the type of return they’re seeking for Jones, and perhaps the time to move him isn’t this offseason. But the Sox do have to remember that relievers a volatile, and that there’s a fine line between waiting for the proper return and letting the period of time when they’ll be able to get the most reward pass them by.
Baseball has underrated Jones for too long, but now is time more than ever for Jones’ value to shine, and for the White Sox to make sure it’s on display.
Lead Image Credit: John Rieger // USA Today Sports Images