White Sox fans hoping for a big leap forward at the major league level in 2018 were disappointed, to say the least. Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson made a variety of improvements around the margins, but neither had a true breakout. Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez made some progress, but not enough to where you feel confident with them as the front of the rotation. Carson Fulmer and Lucas Giolito had disaster seasons, and even when Michael Kopech looked like he may be stepping into the Staff Ace role, his elbow popped. Eloy Jimenez may have crushed major league pitching in 2018 or struggled, but we will never know now.
None of this is fatal to The Rebuild, of course. Part of the plan, after all, was to stockpile a massive arsenal of prospects such that you don’t need everything to go perfectly to have a path to contention. So, when 2018 stalled out, the natural conclusion was to shift the first year where the White Sox might want to try to contend from 2019 to 2020. And maybe the next year the White Sox can make the playoffs actually is 2020, but that doesn’t mean the White Sox shouldn’t make major moves in free agency right now. To consider:
1. The obvious contenders in the American League next year are the reigning World Series champion Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Houston Astros. The A’s and Rays had a good number of positive performances which may be tough to repeat, but it’s fair to say they have a puncher’s chance as well. The rest of the AL is either in full rebuild (Kansas City, Detroit, Texas, Baltimore, Toronto) or in some sort of limbo after suffering a setback year (Angels, Twins). You’ll notice I’m omitting the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners from this discussion. Over the past few days, these Win Now teams have been making a lot of noise about trimming payroll or even going into full rebuilds.
As with every rumor, particularly dramatic ones like these, it is safe to assume they are nothing more than just rumors until you see actions to match the talk. Still, the Mariners were already an old team that has yet to actually crack the playoffs, and it’s hard to see a path to getting significantly better from here. They wildly outperformed their run differential to post 89 wins (with a 77-win pythag) on the back of extreme good fortune in 1-run games, largely thanks to a truly herculean effort from Edwin Diaz fronting what looks like career years from a whole lot of no name relievers. Nelson Cruz is a free agent. Robinson Cano has been gently declining as he is now closer to 40 than 30. And, while Jean Segura, James Paxton, and Mitch Haniger are very nice players still in their 20s, the latter two are brittle, and collectively aren’t enough to drag a lackluster surrounding cast to the promised land. They have a creative front office, but this team as currently composed may very well be out of gas, and accordingly they have announced almost everyone on the roster is for sale.
Cleveland also features a stars-and-scrubs construction at the tail end of a contention window. Unlike Seattle, their stars are a whole lot more impactful — Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, and even Trevor Bauer rate at or near the absolute tops of their positions in all of baseball — and also unlike Seattle they have been rattling off division titles, albeit in a much weaker division. But Cleveland is now mewling lamely about payroll, even apparently complaining about having to pay the absolute bargain Kluber his Cy Young Award bonuses. There’s even some fire to go with this smoke. They refused to make a qualifying offer to Michael Brantley, their only good outfielder in 2018. And, even if they don’t sell guys like Kluber or Carlos Carrasco as reported they are willing to do, the team is going to take on some water next year. Edwin Encarnacion is finally looking like age is getting the best of him, and mainstays Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are likely going elsewhere in free agency.
All that said, Cleveland underperformed their run differential last year and they’re clearly still the best team in the division by a long shot. But, if they actually follow through and trade pieces like Kluber and Carrasco, they crash back that much closer to the AL Central pack.
Yes, you still have to bid against NL teams for free agents, but the American League, particularly in the AL Central specifically, at this moment, may be wide open.
2. This free agent class is different. Some of the shine is off it as Clayton Kershaw and Charlie Blackmon wound up extending and other free agents — like Miller, for instance — aren’t quite as shiny as they looked even six months ago. But, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are both still there. It is my position the White Sox should sign both by outbidding everyone else, or, failing that, push all of their chips in on Harper specifically.
With the caveat that any super rich team can come out of nowhere and sign someone — the Diamondbacks aren’t even one of the powerhouses and they swooped in with the high bid on Zack Greinke, for instance — not only are these two free agents huge outliers in both talent and age, the market for Harper in particular is less sanguine than it might have been under normal circumstances. Part of that is him having one of his “down” years (.249/.393/.496) in his walk year, but part of that is weird circumstances that have cropped up. Yeah, you can always make room for Harper, but the Yankees’ corner outfielders are Aaron Judge and they unexpectedly were able to add Giancarlo Stanton thanks to Project Wolverine. Similarly, I had long thought the Nationals were being underrated as a candidate for Harper’s services, but then Juan Soto basically turned into Bryce Harper II in front of our eyes, and if a Nationals organization who has lost most free agent wars they’ve been in as they desperately try to get everyone to take deferred salary wants to play it safe, they can lose Harper and still potentially roll out with three All-Star outfielders anyway. The Cubs were long considered a candidate for Harper’s services but now they are murmuring about trimming payroll too!
Machado will likely have more suitors, as the ability to cover shortstop and third makes him suitable for more teams than the corner-limited Harper, but some of the same payroll factors — Boston is probably tapped out although watch them sign both these guys anyway — or weird cheapness might drag his salary back into the realm of reality.
And all of this brings us back to the White Sox.
I will never bet on this team to spend until I see it. Historically, that’s just not what they do. To be fair, full teardown rebuilds, outbidding the field for guys like Luis Robert, or drafting highly touted Scott Boras clients like Carlos Rodon weren’t moves in the organization’s history either. But for all that you can talk about how stockpiling a million prospects helps you replenish your major league roster internally with depth — true! — the whole point of homegrown players is they’re cheap. You’re paying Yoan Moncada $550,000 a year to be a league average second baseman* instead of $10 million or whatever for Asdrubal Cabrera. If you repeat that all over the roster, as the White Sox intend to do, it would seem, then that should free up a ton of money to supplement the roster elsewhere.
*Yes obviously he should be a better player than this, but for now bear with me.
To that end, the White Sox currently have an estimated $54.5 million in payroll commitments for 2019 right now and $5.75 million in commitments for 2020. They could sign both Machado and Harper to $35 million a year deals and their opening day payroll would still have ranked 18th in the majors last year. They could give them each $40 million a year and still be right about where their payroll was in 2011. You can non-tender Avisail Garcia and save another ~$8.5 million if you need to to get it done. And, because of their age and skill sets, you don’t need to get good right away to get good value on their contracts. They’re likely to still be very good in 2020, or 2022, or 2024. And yeah, their contracts will ultimately be riddled with opt outs, and injuries and underperformance can happen, and EVERYONE wants to sign these guys, but the stars are aligning and fate is reaching out its hand.
The White Sox have the ability to back up the Brinks truck to both of their homes as much as anybody, and given just how much payroll room they have, should be able to outbid anyone. Whether they have the will to do so is another question, but they have the ability to do so.
If the overwhelming majority of teams in the majors are in some version of a rebuild that means the market inefficiency is to go for it. You’ve already acquired virtually all of prospects you’re going to acquire by selling pieces from the major league roster. These are the guys you’re going to try to win with. The next free agent class does not offer anything near this type of opportunity. You can sign these contracts and still have room to do more to shore up the fringes of the roster, which, by the way, should be supplemented by the future of the team you have already committed to. Ironically, for this franchise, the White Sox are currently choked to the gills with 1-2 WARP players and don’t seem to have a star anywhere on the roster (yet) and have a pipeline of potential stars but also potential spare parts. You can plop two 26-year-olds onto the roster who have posted multiple 5-7 WARP seasons and, in Harper, a guy who posted an 11.2 WARP season in 2015.
Even moderate internal improvement from potential stars like Anderson and Moncada (and throw in Jimenez etc. while we’re at it) and modest other moves on the periphery and that would immediately put the team’s win expectation in the low-to-mid 80s with room for more. The division is already there for the taking and may be getting even more up-for-grabs, and the White Sox are uniquely positioned to exploit this unique opportunity. If they don’t get one of these two guys, you are that much more reliant on what’s in house turning into gold or having to trade good pieces away to get something back. Why bother when you can use the freely available resources you have in surplus to just add two MVP candidates just entering their primes to your core?
I don’t claim to be some sort of savant for suggesting “pay the most money to the best free agents” but you could not draw up a better situation for the White Sox given their current situation.
Hell. Trade for James Paxton while you’re at it.
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