Christian Yelich

The three big questions everyone's asking at SoxFest

The three big questions everyone's asking at SoxFest

SoxFest 2018 is a happening place.

Sold out, the event is packed with rebuild-loving White Sox fans ready for the much-discussed future of the organization. Autograph lines are packed to capacity, the hallways are buzzing, and Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria had a full house for their Saturday-morning seminar at the Hilton Chicago.

Fans asked the general manager and the skipper a bunch of questions, but there are certain hot topics on everyone’s mind. And just like they did in a smaller seminar Friday night, fans lobbed the most pressing questions at Hahn.

Here are the three questions everyone’s asking at SoxFest.

1. When will Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez make it to the major leagues?

Perhaps the biggest overarching question of the upcoming campaign. Fans want to know when the two biggest stars of the rebuild will make it to the South Side.

The answer is actually an easy one: No one knows yet.

But it seems like a good bet to assume that Kopech, at least, will reach the bigs sometime this season after he dominated at Double-A Birmingham last year and forced Hahn & Co. into an unscheduled promotion to Triple-A Charlotte. Jimenez, meanwhile, hasn’t played much above the Class A level, meaning seeing him advance to the majors is perhaps less likely than Kopech — but also still possible considering how he’s mashed his way through the minors so far.

Hahn offered up a more nuanced explanation of what the “reasonable” expectations are for two guys who have a ton of hype surrounding them — and who have each said in recent days that they’re ready when the call to big leagues comes.

“Kopech and Eloy, not too dissimilar from conversations and questions we had about (Yoan) Moncada last year. Now, Moncada was a little bit more advanced than Eloy in terms of age, he’s a year older, he’d already been in the big leagues, he’d spent a fair amount of time in Double-A. Eloy has four weeks above A-ball, and he just turned 21. In theory, it would a perfectly acceptable developmental season at age 21 to spend the whole year at Birmingham in a tough, tough league, the Southern League, and do well. That’s great. That’s what puts him on track to be a potential impact big leaguer for a long time.

“Similarly with Kopech. He has 16 innings in Triple-A at 20 years old. If he spent the whole year in Triple-A and did well, fantastic. At age 21, that’s a real good season for a pitcher in the International League. Up the innings total he has under his belt, continue to refine his off-speed pitches and be ready to make an impact in the big leagues next year. That’s fine.

“That said, the good ones, and you’ve heard me say this many times, have a way of forcing your hand, changing that timeline. … Conceivably, they could blow right past that given their ability and given their upside. We’re not putting any cap on what they’re going to do this year, but we have a sense of what’s a reasonable development year for each of them.”

That might not be exactly what White Sox fans want to hear, considering there are plenty hoping Kopech, in particular, can dazzle in Arizona and make the big league roster out of spring training. But remember that the rebuilding White Sox are blessed with time, and there’s no reason for Hahn & Co. to order a promotion before any prospect is done cooking in the minor leagues.

2. How close were the White Sox to trading for Manny Machado — and will he eventually come to the South Side?

The buzz of the Winter Meetings was the supposed derby for Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, a young star who the O’s reportedly put on the market last month when baseball was gathered down at Walt Disney World. The White Sox were one of the teams reported to be interested in landing Machado, and he’s a player the team’s fans have long coveted in social-media discussions.

Obviously, the White Sox didn’t end up making a trade for Machado. No team has yet, as the 25-year-old is still an Oriole. But the debate still rages whether trading for Machado would’ve been a good move. Netting him obviously would’ve cost Hahn a sizable portion of the prospect capital he’s built in the last year plus, a risky move to say the least considering Machado is slated to hit the free-agent market after the 2018 season. That said, Machado is a special talent, and if the White Sox could have given themselves a leg up in that upcoming sweepstakes, perhaps that would’ve been worth consideration.

Unsurprisingly, Hahn was asked about it Saturday morning. In fact, the rebuild-loving questioner explained how he had hoped Hahn wouldn’t make such a move. But plenty more are wondering if the White Sox will still compete in the bidding war for Machado next winter — with questioners even bringing up the team’s history of not signing players to the kinds of monster deals that have popped up around the game.

So what’s the latest? A tough question to answer considering Hahn can’t talk about players on other teams.

“I’m going to try and avoid a tampering fine at SoxFest. I don’t think that’s in our budget,” Hahn joked.

“Everything we’re doing right now for the past year plus has been aimed at putting ourselves in the best position for the long term. And we absolutely are not going to do anything that’s going to compromise that for a short-term gain. Over arching, there’s a plan in place that we’re not going to deviate from.

“That said, when intriguing talent becomes available, we are going to at the very least check in, have conversations, understand the value of our players that are asked about … and if we feel like we can acquire something that’s controllable on a shorter term that we might be able to extend for a longer term, we’ll take that opportunity seriously. Obviously there was no transaction this offseason that involved us giving up prospects for short fixes.”

Hahn reiterated what he’s said a few times this winter, that the team has shattered expectations in what it’s done during the last year plus, starting a full-scale rebuild and making a trade with the Cubs being two examples of Hahn doing things fans thought the White Sox would “never do.” There’s a certain assumption that the White Sox also won’t shell out the big bucks that it would take to land Machado, who’s expected to get one of the larger contracts in baseball history. Hahn said again Friday that fans shouldn’t expect the team to conform to those kinds of expectations.

So there’s that.

3. What was the cost of trading for Christian Yelich?

Another big name the White Sox were tied to at various points this offseason through a variety of rumors was Christian Yelich, the now-former Miami Marlins outfielder who was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week.

Much like the discussion surrounding the White Sox and Machado, it figured that the price would be steep in terms of prospect capital, and that ended up being the case for the Brewers, who traded away a four-player package headlined by their No. 1 prospect to bring Yelich to Wisconsin.

Where could the Marlins have got that sort of idea?

“You’ve seen some teams extract pretty high prospect prices in the last year or so,” Hahn deadpanned, sparking plenty of applause.

The thing with Yelich, however, is his contract, which unlike Machado’s, keeps him under team control for another five seasons. That made for a much different argument when it came to the White Sox, considering their contention window is expected to open before the end of those five years, making him a long-term acquisition like Hahn talked about.

At this point, it’s all just for discussion purposes considering Yelich has a new home, but fans were interested in what it might have cost to bring Yelich to the South Side.

Hahn said Friday that the White Sox “had an understanding of what it was going to take” to acquire Yelich and added that it was “not a level we were comfortable with.”

Upon seeing what the Brewers gave up, you’d have to figure the Marlins were asking for at least one of the White Sox highest-rated guys, perhaps a Kopech or a Jimenez, though of course that’s just speculation. If that was the case, fans should be happy Hahn didn’t pull the trigger on a trade for Yelich.

The bottom line appears to be — and Hahn has even hinted at the possibility of next offseason being a much different one for the White Sox — the team doesn’t yet appear to be in the position where they’re adding big-time pieces from the outside.

One thing Hahn said repeatedly over the past two days is that the White Sox have enough major and minor league talent where they could project out a "championship-caliber" player at every position on the big league team. And that’s true, with the caveat that all those prospects need to blossom into what they’re projected to be. But until they do or don’t, there’s no knowing what holes will exist and which ones will need filling.

“We objectively have options at every position, guys who could, if they max out and hit their ceiling, provide us with championship-caliber players at every position on the field and on the pitching staff,” he said Friday. “Unfortunately, player development isn’t always linear and cruel things happen and the baseball gods likely have some hiccups in store for us along the way, so ultimately not everyone is going to hit those ceilings in all probability. Once we know more, which could be a year from now, it could be 18 months from now, about which of these players are truly going to come close to approaching their ceilings, then we’ll be able to more aggressively address what remaining holes may exist at that time.”

Cubs fans shouldn't be too worried about the Brewers...yet

Cubs fans shouldn't be too worried about the Brewers...yet

While the rest of baseball continues to spend the winter chilling, the Milwaukee Brewers have turned up.

The Brew Crew made waves earlier in the week with reports they were linked to Yu Darvish and then Christian Yelich. Sure enough, the Yelich rumor was true and Milwaukee acquired the cost-controlled star outfielder Thursday night. 

In a corresponding move, the Brewers also inked Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal.

It had some Cubs fans in a tizzy, and for good reason. Yelich may well be on the verge of superstardom and is owed only $58 million over the next five seasons if the Brewers pick up his 2022 team option. 

That's a heck of a team-friendly contract for a small-market organization — getting five years of a guy's prime for well-under-market value. 

Cain is also a very good player, but will make $22 million more than Yelich in the same five-year span, though he'll be ages 32-36 for that contract and has seen his defensive value in center field decline for four straight seasons.

It's adding two very good hitters to a lineup that already woke up Thursday morning as one of the best in baseball. 

Here's what the Brewers' Opening Day lineup could look like (h/t Roster Resource):

There's no question the job of the Cubs' pitching staff has gotten harder in 2018 with those lineup additions, but this isn't the same kind of ground-shaking series of moves as when the St. Louis Cardinals cleared room in their outfield for Marcell Ozuna.

The Brewers should be a really good team in 2018, but here's why the flurry of moves shouldn't make the Cubs shake in their boots just yet:

That's the Brewers' projected starting rotation for Opening Day. 

Right-hander Jimmy Nelson may be able to join those ranks given that he's reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery from a shoulder injury. That would be a game-changer, but shoulder injuries are notoriously unstable and nobody knows how many starts Nelson could be penciled in for.

That rotation doesn't exactly scream out "October-worthy." 

Zach Davies is a good starter — think a poor man's Kyle Hendricks — and Chase Anderson emerged in 2017 as the ace of the Milwaukee staff with a breakout season.

But beyond that, it's iffy. Junior Guerra regressed badly last season after a breakthrough in 2016; Yovani Gallardo has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons; and Jhoulys Chacin's track record is marred by inconsistency and injury. 

Brent Suter is kind of the Milwaukee version of Mike Montgomery, so Suter very well could become a big part of the Brewers rotation if needed, but still, starting pitching is a clear weak spot. Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff were two of the top pitching prospects in baseball before 2017, so they could be a factor as well. 

There are so many question marks and very little in terms of track record for any of the options the Brewers have to start every fifth day.

The bullpen has one of the elite arms in the game at the back end (Corey Knebel), but the rest of the group features a young/inexperienced core that has added only journeyman Boone Logan this winter.

Milwaukee made it work and won 86 games with largely the same pitching staff in 2017, but they got career years out of all of their major guys and will need to do so again if they're gonna hang with the Cubs and Cardinals in the divison. 

Yet the Brewers haven't done much to address that clear weakness. Chacin, Gallardo and Logan don't really qualify as making waves to improve in that regard.

The offense was already dynamic in 2017. Adding Yelich helps and Cain is a very good player, but the Brewers already had two very good outfielders — Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana — before Thursday's moves. Now, one of those guys is probably out, and that's likely Santana given Braun is owed at least $60 million more over the next three seasons. 

As mentioned earlier, Cain's skills are already in decline and $80 million is a lot to commit to what was already an area of strength on the Brewers' roster when that money could've been better spent on adding an arm like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish or Alex Cobb.

Even if the Brewers make a trade for a starting pitcher with Santana as the headliner of the return package, it's a puzzling decision for a small-market team. Why pay an aging veteran (Cain) $16 million/season and then deal away an up-and-coming 25-year-old who is very cheap for the next four seasons and coming off a 30-homer, .875-OPS season?

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office talk constantly about trying to mitigate risk and spend each offseason aiming to shore up weaknesses and add depth to combat the war of attrition that strikes down a team's pitching staff each year. The Brewers don't have that same approach here, at least not yet. (There are still plenty of moves the Brewers can make, so this winter's chess match is far from over.)

The Brewers aren't going anywhere anytime soon — these moves assured that — but they're still another arm or two away from being a true threat that will make Cubs fans wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

But even if Milwaukee does get to that point, that's a great thing for the Cubs in general. Last September was a whole lot of (stressful) fun for fans as the Cubs had a week straight of games against the Brewers and Cardinals to decide the fate of the NL Central.

Baseball is better when the Cubs are challenged in their own division as opposed to just rolling over the rest of the NL Central and locking a playoff spot up in the first week of September.

*pauses, thinks for a moment*

*realizes the year the Cubs won the World Series, they rolled over the division and locked up a playoff spot in the first week of September*

*realizes also that the Cubs were exhausted and drained by the time they even reached the playoffs in 2017, in part because of that stressful week against the Brewers and Cardinals*

On second thought, maybe Cubs fans should panic...

But hey, the silver lining to this whole Yelich move is — at least the Cubs could jump out to a 4-0 start to the 2018 regular season by opening the year in Miami.

Brewers reportedly agree to deal with free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain

lorenzo_cain.jpg
USA TODAY

Brewers reportedly agree to deal with free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain

The Brewers are having themselves a day.

A little over an hour after acquiring outfielder Christian Yelich from the Marlins, Milwaukee has reportedly agreed to a deal with outfielder Lorenzo Cain. The deal reportedly is worth $80 million for five seasons.

Cain, who will turn 32 shortly after Opening Day, hit .300 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs for the Royals in 2017. He also achieved career highs in hits (175) and on base percentage (.363).

Last season, Cain made 151 appearances in center field with the Royals, though he has played right and left field in his career as well. He will likely slide into right field for the Brewers, with Ryan Braun playing left field and Yelich likely manning center field.

The additions of Cain and Yelich should bolster a Brewers' offense that was 21st in the MLB in team batting average (.249) and 20th in runs scored (732) in 2017.