At the end of the 2017 Winter Meetings, I asked Rick Hahn a question that has been brewing around the White Sox ever since they started the rebuild two years ago.
How much are you thinking about the big free-agent class of 2018 when things can really get exciting for the White Sox?
“It’s certainly been on our minds. It’s been discussed, “ Hahn replied that day. “We expect things to be a lot more interesting a year from now.”
How interesting will it get? We don’t know for sure. A lot might depend on how much they believe their prospects developed in 2018, as Hahn explained in the same interview.
“A year from right now, we’re going to know a lot more about the timelines of (our) prospects,” Hahn said. “Which ones are more likely than not to be able to contribute sooner rather than later and reach their ceilings, and where in the organization we are going to have some depth that perhaps has to be moved or to fill in either via trade or via free agency. So we’re going to know a lot more a year from now about how quickly we’re going to get to where we want to be.”
To which I responded, “So, you’re going to sign Manny Machado?”
Well, here we are. The next offseason has arrived for the White Sox. Here are some free agents who will be great fits for the White Sox next season and the future. Some are home run swings, others are singles and doubles. The first one is the grand slam.
1. Third base: Manny Machado
This is the dream scenario, probably a pipe dream, but Machado checks all the boxes for the White Sox. He’s a 26-year-old superstar, a charismatic franchise player coming off the best season of his career. Though he has stated his desire to play shortstop, Machado says he will play third base “for the right team,” according to Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports.
The White Sox have very little on the books over the next five years. If they want to pay him $40 million a year, they have room to do it. Is it wise to give that much money to a single player who would represent 40 to 50 percent of your entire payroll? Probably not, but players like this rarely become available. His signing would plant a flag and send a message to the rest of the league that the White Sox have arrived. Baseball would be electric on the South Side. In theory, it’s a no-brainer. In reality, he’s probably signing with the Yankees. But you can dream!
Backup plan: Josh Donaldson
Donaldson’s market will be interesting to watch this winter. He’s coming off two injury-plagued seasons (played in a total of 165 games), but when healthy he’s one of the best hitters in the game. He will be 33 years old and made $23 million in 2018. Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon are set to be third base free-agent options in 2020, so keep that in mind. The White Sox don’t have much on their payroll for next season. If Donaldson is willing to sign a one-year deal to prove he’s healthy, play in a hitter-friendly ballpark in the American League and try for a bigger contract the following season, I’d pounce. He’s an immediate difference-maker in the lineup. You make Yolmer Sanchez a super utility guy. Daryl Boston can blow his whistle at Donaldson to celebrate the signing.
2. Outfield: Adam Jones
When I asked Eloy Jimenez in 2017 on the White Sox Talk Podcast how good of a baseball player he wanted to be, he answered, “Like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Adam Jones. Superstars. That is my dream.” If Jimenez thinks that highly of Jones, why not sign the free-agent outfielder to a one- or two-year deal and let him mentor the White Sox future star? Jones will be 33. He had 15 home runs and 63 RBIs in 2018, his lowest totals since 2008, but he’s one of the most respected players in the game and will bring the White Sox added value for what he brings off the field. Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter said this about Jones this season: “His example of how to play the game has meant more than anything.” The White Sox will have a bunch of young outfielders coming up from the minors over the next couple years. I can’t think of a better veteran to have on the roster to show them the way than Jones.
Backup plan: Curtis Granderson
The South Suburbs native keeps on truckin’. At 37 years old, he slashed .242/.351/.431 in 2018. Like Jones, he’s cut from the James Shields leadership cloth. He made only $5 million this year. He can play in front of his friends and family. You can have UIC Night at the ballpark. Sounds like a win-win.
3. Starting pitcher: J.A. Happ
With Michael Kopech not back until 2020 and Shields a free agent, the White Sox have two spots to fill in the rotation. As great as it would be to sign someone like Dallas Keuchel or Patrick Corbin, a smart plan here is to sign a veteran like Happ as a bridge to when you have pitchers like Kopech, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning ready to compete in the majors. After the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays this summer, Happ went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA. That might keep him in New York, but if they’re trying to sign Machado and either Corbin or Keuchel, even the Yankees might not have money left for Happ.
Backup plan: Gio Gonzalez
He was drafted by the White Sox, traded by the White Sox (for Jim Thome), acquired by the White Sox (for Freddy Garcia), traded again by the White Sox (for Nick Swisher). Why not come full circle and sign Gonzalez as a free agent? Then trade him again. Seriously, he would be a solid option for the rotation. He finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting in 2017.
4. Relief pitcher: Adam Ottavino
The White Sox currently don’t have a true closer in their bullpen. They might not contend in 2019, so spending big money on a closer wouldn’t be the most prudent decision to make from that standpoint. However, there are a bunch of free agents available this offseason (Jeurys Familia, Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, etc.) and fewer options are expected on the market next offseason. Do the White Sox go all-in on a closer this winter so they’ve got someone reliable at the back end of the bullpen for 2020 and beyond? Tough call. Not just for a closer, but for setup men, too. These are tough, risky waters to swim in. Hahn knows it.
“The prices to go out and build a good, proven bullpen right now are awfully steep. That’s coming for the White Sox in the coming years. That’s the part that scares me,” Hahn said in our interview at last year’s Winter Meetings. “We’ve got to be right on those. When you’re betting $14 to $20 million on a seventh-inning guy, you better be right.”
From an age standpoint, Familia makes sense because he’ll only be 29 years old next season. His 1.8 WAR is the second highest among relievers in this free-agent class, second to Ottavino’s 2.0. Familia had 51 saves in 2016. But is he the pitcher you want to hitch your wagon to for the next four years? Maybe.
To me, the safer bet is Ottavino, who wasn’t the Rockies' closer last season (he had six saves) but definitely has closer stuff: 112 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. He also had a 2.10 ERA in 34 innings at Coors Field. The dude throws filth. He’ll be 33 years old, so he’s probably not a long-term answer. The White Sox could make Ottavino the closer until one of the young arms like Zack Burdi is ready. If that doesn’t work out, trade a prospect to get a closer by 2021. I agree with Hahn. The high-end bullpen market scares me.
Backup option: Familia
5. Can’t beat him, sign him: Michael Brantley
Brantley is exactly the kind of hitter the White Sox need: a patient, on-base guy who doesn’t strike out (60 in 631 plate appearances in 2018), is left-handed, can hit for power and is a doubles machine. In 17 games against the White Sox in 2018, he slashed .343/.400/.567 with four home runs. Because of his injury history, will he get anything more than a two-year deal? That’s the question. Try to sign him for two years as a bridge until all your outfield prospects are MLB ready, bat him second behind Yoan Moncada and in front of Jose Abreu and Eloy Jimenez and watch this offense take off. He’s a hitter who makes everyone around him in the lineup better. The Indians' offense would be worse without him. Another win-win.
Backup plan: Eduardo Escobar
Ever since the White Sox traded him to the Twins for Francisco Liriano in 2012, Escobar has seemingly made it his mission to make the White Sox pay for it, especially this past season: .333/.423/.733 with four HR and 11 RBIs in 12 games. Thankfully, the Twins traded him to the Diamondbacks at the deadline to limit the damage. Now he’s a free agent, he’s coming off a career season, and he can play third base. Honestly, I’m just hoping he signs with a National League team so the White Sox only have to face him in Interleague play.
So there you have it. My free-agent targets for the White Sox. It’s much easier to write about free agents than sign them. We don’t know how aggressive the White Sox will be this offseason, but one thing seems certain: That day is coming. Stay tuned.
Back for another round of questions here in the Sox Drawer. Let's go.
Q: Do you believe this is the Sox "Lester" offseason where they make a large investment in a player for the future? Or are we still one year away from seeing this? — @BCurley3
CG: That's a question many White Sox fans are wondering about. And by the "Lester" signing, I assume you are referring to the likes of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. I'd like to think that if the White Sox have a desire to sign a big-name free agent, they will make every attempt to do it now and not wait for the 2020 free agents, even if it's coming off a 100-loss season. As general manager Rick Hahn put it in his season-ending press conference, "You can't always control when certain players become available. You can say in 2020 or 2021 we expect to be this, and we know we are going to need X. You can't look at the projected free agent and say that player will be available, much less that player will be a White Sox when the time comes." It might turn out that the White Sox don't sign that marquee free agent this offseason, but going off what Hahn said, I believe they will go all-in when their targeted "Jon Lester" is available.
Q: If you had your choice, would the White Sox sign Manny Machado or Nolan Arenado? — @Dehhmac_
CG: I'll take either. Arenado gets the edge defensively. Machado has the advantage offensively. One stat about Arenado that gives me some pause is his career home/away splits. At Coors Field, he's slashing .320/.374/.609. Away from Coors Field, he's at .263/.318/.469. He's still a great player, but his numbers are inflated due to the higher elevation in Denver. If they don't sign him to a contract extension this winter, I'm curious to see if the Rockies listen to trade offers during the Winter Meetings like the Orioles did with Machado last year. The Rockies are much more competitive than the Orioles, so they might decide to go for it one more time with Arenado. If not, a crazy Winter Meetings just got crazier.
Q: I have long expected this to be the offseason when the Sox start signing free agents. However, lately, I've heard about possible big-name trade potentials. Do you expect trades this early in the rebuild or mainly acquisition through free agency? — @ToddHertz
CG: At some point, the White Sox will probably dip into their farm system to acquire major league upgrades where they see fit. Because there were so many injuries to prospects last season, I'm not sure they've seen enough to know exactly what they have to make those kind trades just yet. However, the one position in the minors where they seem very deep right now is in the outfield. That could be an area they could subtract from to add elsewhere. I think the White Sox timed their rebuild very well with free agency. Last year's lackluster free-agent class was a great time to be on the sidelines. The next two winters will have much better talent available. The White Sox don't have much on the books and will be in a good financial position to make upgrades.
Q: After Eloy comes up in April who's the next guy in waiting and when does he come up? — @franknacchio19
CG: With two open spots in the rotation, we could see a few prospects compete for starting jobs in spring training. Jordan Guerrero, Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams are possibilities. All three of them finished the season at Charlotte and could be close to knocking on the door. The next big name after that would seemingly be Dylan Cease, who if he continues to pitch like he did this past season will probably be on the Michael Kopech timeline to the majors, and Kopech came up in August.
Q: If the rumors are true and the Diamondbacks dismantle their roster, which player on their roster makes sense for this White Sox team long term? — @mr_zablocki
Q: Who would you hypothetically trade for Goldshmidt? — @DaRealScaletta
CG: Looking at the Diamondbacks' roster, there aren't many natural fits with the White Sox rebuild. Where's the All-Star third baseman on a rebuilding team with a four-year, team-friendly contract? I like Zack Greinke, but he's going to be 35-years-old and has three years and $104 million left on his contract. A 27-year-old Robbie Ray would be solid, but he's under team control for only two more years. Paul Goldschmidt is an all-world first baseman with three Gold Gloves, but he's a free agent after next season. Depending on what the White Sox do with Jose Abreu, who also has one year left on his contract, maybe they go after Goldschmidt next offseason if they don't re-sign Abreu.
Q: Tell a Yolmer story. — @NJBooth20
CG: Yolmer was wearing this cool T-shirt in the clubhouse this past season. On the front, it said "play hard" with a photo of him making Mickey Mouse ears. On the back it said "have fun," and there's the photo of him pouring Gatorade all over himself. I asked him if I could have one of those T-shirts. He said, "50 dollars." I countered with, "How about 30?" With perfect comedic timing, Yolmer came back with, "Make it 10." He might not be the best bargainer in the world, but Yolmer Sanchez is definitely one of the funniest people around.
Q: Why did Nagy run the ball on 3rd and 4?? — @rypie182
CG: Not sure.
Q: Can I leave a voicemail? Too drunk to tweet. — @HurriKayne26
CG: Rough Bears game.
Q: Who will be the biggest surprise and/or the greatest improvement for next season's team? — @nicklicious33
CG: Good question. If he's able to come back, I can think of one person in particular who would be quite an incredible surprise in 2019. That's Danny Farquhar. At home in California recovering from his near-death brain aneurysm, Farquhar is training with the hopes of pitching in the majors again, possibly as soon as 2019. I wouldn't put it past him. He's a special person who has been defying the odds since that horrific night in April. It would be great to see!
Thanks again for all of your questions. We'll do it again next week.