I’ve written about this quite a bit in the last few years, but if the White Sox truly want to compete in the future, they’re going to have to spend more money. It’s simply inevitable. When you look at recent examples of teams coming out of their scorched-earth rebuilds — think Astros, Cubs and even the Royals — it’s been necessary for them to continue improving their team through large monetary investments in talented players. The Astros ended 2017 with a payroll close to $150 million – largest in franchise history. The 2016 Cubs had a year-end payroll of more than $200 million – largest in franchise history. And the Royals ended 2015 with close to $130 million in player contracts, which, while small in comparison to these other teams, was a more than $30 million increase in payroll over any previous season, which makes it, once again, the largest in franchise history. With the middle ground between competing and rebuilding shrinking every year, teams in their competitive cycle are having to spend more and more on their players and the White Sox will likely be no exception.
The White Sox chose not to spend exuberantly on their last contention cycle and they paid the price (no pun intended) for it by missing the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016. Knowing that the White Sox lacked talent in their farm system during those years, I consistently advocated that the White Sox should add talent to their rosters through top-tier free agent acquisitions. The White Sox didn’t have prospect capital to improve the team, but they did have cash to utilize and the easiest way to use that cash and improve the team is not just free agency, but the most talented free agents available. But by now, if you haven’t figured it out, it’s clear the White Sox are particularly allergic to large free agent acquisitions — the evidence is abundant. The White Sox are one of very few teams to have never given out a $100 million contract to a free agent. In 2015, the White Sox passed on getting involved in free agent derbies for top free agents like Max Scherzer and Nelson Cruz, instead turning their focus to more modest acquisitions. When presented with the opportunity to greatly upgrade their club’s outfield before the 2016 season the White Sox again passed on adding top free agents like Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, or Dexter Fowler because they didn’t see enough value in the signings. And Rick Hahn has even gone on record saying that free agency is where teams see the worst return on investment. You start to add all of these things together and it becomes clear that the White Sox would prefer to avoid free agency as much as possible and looking to the future, expecting the White Sox to add a top-tier player, say Bryce Harper, to their team through free agency is a fool’s errand.
So if the White Sox continue to shut themselves off from free agency as a vector for talent, they need to find other ways to invest in the team. They started on that path with a big amateur free agent acquisition in Luis Robert (though the total monetary cost of that move was mitigated by a reduced team payroll, which continued throughout the 2017 season), but now they need to continue following that mold to help the team. Luckily, the Giancarlo Stanton trade has created an opportunity for the White Sox of all teams.
The Yankees came into the 2017-2018 offseason prioritizing trimming the payroll below the luxury tax. They didn’t anticipate acquiring Stanton from the Marlins, but Stanton wasn’t willing to go to the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants, leaving very few teams as options for his services. When the Yankees realized the marginal cost that they would have to pay to acquire such a talented player (he was worth an amazing 8.5 WARP last season and has averaged moer than 6 WARP during the last four seasons) they couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity. This maneuver, while very valuable in a baseball sense, pushed their payroll to greater heights and has put more pressure on them to move other contracts off of the roster. Their first move to relieve this pressure was to trade Chase Headley along with pitcher Bryan Mitchell to the Padres for non-prospect Jabari Blash. The Padres effectively bought Mitchell by taking on Chase Headley and this is exactly what I propose the White Sox do for another Yankee: Jacoby Ellsbury.
Over at Fangraphs, Travis Sawchik wrote about Ellsbury and his estimated negative surplus value to the Yankees as a player due nearly $70 million, including his contract buyout, over the next 3 years. Sawchik concluded that a prospect like Clint Frazier, Baseball Prospectus’s 16th ranked prospect entering the 2017 season, would be the cost of making an Ellsbury salary dump possible. Given the additional context that Frazier, a corner outfielder, is now blocked on the Yankees by both Aaron Judge, the newly acquired Stanton, and even the perfectly solid Brett Gardner, one has to believe the Yankees would be willing to part with him if an opportunity to improve their club’s financial situation arose. The White Sox should absolutely be willing to provide the Yankees this opportunity.
Earlier this winter, Hahn had said the White Sox were likely going to have a payroll around $70 million. The White Sox haven’t had a payroll that low in more than a decade, 2005 to be exact. The White Sox also have incredibly limited future payroll commitments in 2019 and 2020, the last two years of Ellsbury’s contract. Suffice it to say that the White Sox would easily be able to absorb the entire Ellsbury contract without issue. The White Sox also enter the 2018 season without a true center fielder on the roster, assuming they want to continue to deploy Leury Garcia in a super-utility role. They could use this roster vacancy as a selling point to Ellsbury who would have to waive his no-trade clause in order to be dealt, which should be the biggest impediment to the consummation of this deal. The real prize for the White Sox would be adding a prospect of Frazier’s caliber who would be under team control for six more seasons at very reasonable price, fitting perfectly into the next contention window. It’s an opportunity that’s almost too good to be true for a team that wants to compete with a modest budget and avoid massive free agent contracts. I just hope the White Sox are able to take advantage of this opportunity while they have a chance.
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