LAS VEGAS — South Side baseball fans have been dreaming about Bryce Harper signing up with the White Sox ever since they were first reported as interested a month ago back at the GM Meetings.
Now it's the Winter Meetings, baseball's annual frenzy of offseason activity, here in Harper's hometown, no less, and the noise surrounding that possibility keeps getting louder.
One thought was floated on the first night of these meetings that the Harper sweepstakes might already be down to a final three teams, the White Sox being one of them alongside the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. Representatives from the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals spent Monday telling reporters they likely weren't going to sign Harper. The Washington Nationals' owner already said he doesn't think Harper will be back in the nation's capital. And the big-spending Cubs are financially tied up to the point where they might not be a possibility for Harper, either.
That all adds up to the White Sox being in one heck of a unique position to land one of the best players in baseball and the biggest fish on this winter's free-agent market.
One of the game's biggest national names chimed in Tuesday morning. The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal authored a column explaining the White Sox situation and their pursuits of Harper and fellow mega free agent Manny Machado. For those who have followed every scrap of information regarding the White Sox and Harper over the last month or so, this served better as an explainer than a news-breaker. But Rosenthal did mention that the White Sox appear to prefer signing Harper to Machado. He also mentioned that the Crosstown-rival Cubs are "not engaged in a pursuit of Harper," perhaps more emphatically taking them off the table as possible competition.
Certainly both 26-year-old superstars would fit in with the White Sox long-term plans, but there definitely exist questions about Machado's fit that don't exist about Harper's. First, Harper could easily slide into the team's hole in right field, whereas Machado has stated his desire to play shortstop, one of the few positions where the White Sox have a long-term piece on their major league roster. Second, Machado's now-infamous comments about his distaste for hustling contrasted sharply with manager Rick Renteria's "don't quit" culture and his persistent benching of anyone who he felt didn't hustle during the 2018 season.
It's a mystery whether either of those things impact the White Sox thinking on which star they prefer. But Machado's incredible production with the bat and with the glove makes him an attractive long-term option, regardless.
Rosenthal's piece focused on team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who famously handed out baseball's then-biggest-ever contract in 1996 to sign Albert Belle. Harper is expected to receive the new biggest contract in baseball history this winter. Rosenthal included this line, as well:
"Reinsdorf privately has expressed doubt his team will actually win the bidding for Harper or Machado, according to a source with knowledge of his thinking. But even with the White Sox at least a year away from contention, he is not stopping his front office from engaging in the pursuit of the two stars, and the possibility of a marriage with Harper seemingly is growing more realistic."
The competition might not be as big as once imagined, but it should still remain fierce. The Phillies have vowed to spend "stupid" this offseason in their pursuit of building a contender. The Dodgers are always a threat to cough up large sums. And the potentially lurking Cubs, as Rosenthal mentioned, have a trio of $100 million players on their roster right now, so they're obviously not shy about spending big.
But the White Sox have almost no long-term financial commitments to speak of, their financial flexibility achieved as part of their ongoing rebuilding effort. Team vice president Ken Williams said Monday that they have shifted into a more aggressive mode this winter, not a surprise to hear aloud after months of their reported activity involving any number of available players.
General manager Rick Hahn has been saying for months that the team will look to take advantage of opportunities that make sense for the long-term future of the club, and it's hard to argue any move would make more long-term sense than adding Harper (or Machado) to lead a group of talented youngsters, many of whom have yet to reach the major leagues, into perennial contention mode.
"It’s very important for us to remain very diligent where we are in this," Hahn said Monday night. "We’re entering Year 3 of a rebuild, and although I think there’s some potential skepticism that it might be a year too soon, perhaps be pushing it, we’re very mindful of that. And we also want to balance the fact there is some unique opportunities out there in the market, and we wouldn’t be doing our job — even if it is perhaps a year too early — not doing our job if we didn’t fully vet those opportunities.
"It doesn’t mean we’re going to just look for any way to make some sort of splash. It has to fit with the long-term vision of what we’re trying to accomplish. Traditionally, the third year of a rebuild isn’t always the time where you push those chips in, so to speak, but when unique opportunities present themselves you have to respond."
The challenge would seem to be convincing Harper or Machado (who has a different set of reported suitors, though the White Sox are reported to be very much in the mix there, too) to join a team whose plans for the future are just that, plans, as opposed to teams like the Yankees or Dodgers or even the Phillies, to a degree, that can point to win-now rosters and recent examples of success at the major league level. Hahn thinks he has the right selling points with his carefully assembled collection of minor league talent and the bright future this rebuilding effort has created.
"Someone asked me last week when we did a conference call, 'How do you sell a team that lost 100 games last year?' And really, the conversations we're having aren't about our past, they're about the future," Hahn said. "And everyone who's involved in the game and follows the game closely knows where we're headed and what we've tried to accomplish over the last couple years and what we're going to continue to build for in the future. And in terms of the prospect of being something special for an extended period of time in the future in Chicago, that has appeal to people. That's more important to them than where we were last year in the second year of a rebuild."
And so the buzz continues to increase in volume when it comes to the possibility of Harper landing on the South Side. The White Sox seem willing and able to spend and aggressive in pursuing this one-of-a-kind opportunity. But until a deal is done — with the White Sox or one of their competitors — the race is still on.
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