White Sox

Chuck Garfien's top five free agents the White Sox should target this offseason

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USA TODAY

Chuck Garfien's top five free agents the White Sox should target this offseason

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?”

Hahn laughed.

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.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster.