Madison Bumgarner

Will the White Sox make a big splash at the Winter Meetings?

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USA Today

Will the White Sox make a big splash at the Winter Meetings?

SAN DIEGO — At the GM meetings last month in Arizona, White Sox vice president Kenny Williams teased that the team was going to do more business than usual.

We found out later that the White Sox met with Yasmani Grandal while out in the desert. And when the free-agent catcher got the richest deal in club history the following week, it was a sign the White Sox were serious about their intent to be aggressive and make some big splashes this winter ahead of a possible transition from rebuilding to contending in 2020.

The Grandal signing earned nothing short of rave reviews, but there’s still an awful lot on the to-do list for general manager Rick Hahn and his front office as the Winter Meetings get going here in Southern California. The White Sox have designs on adding a pair of starting pitchers to their rotation and landing an everyday right fielder. An everyday-type DH could also be in the cards, though Grandal’s arrival has at least provided a more realistic internal option in the form of a multi-player rotation. Bullpen help is never turned away.

Much of that could be addressed this week, with ample opportunities to cross those items off the list, even if in less headline-grabbing style. You’ll remember back to last year’s Winter Meetings, when the White Sox filled a hole in their rotation by trading for Ivan Nova.

But with no disrespect to Mr. Nova, most fans are waiting for a much bigger splash.

It’s what the White Sox tried to get done before they flew out to the West Coast. Just last week they reportedly made the highest bid in the Zack Wheeler sweepstakes, only for the 29-year-old free agent to take less money to play for the Philadelphia Phillies. Cries of “here we go again” from the fan base — still stinging from the way things played out with Manny Machado a winter ago — were quickly quelled by the financial details, and it sure seems there aren’t any more excuses for anyone to stick to the old talking point that the White Sox are unwilling or unable to spend. Wheeler’s deal, had he accepted it, would have broken Grandal’s weeks-old record for the most expensive contract in club history.

So will someone else actually take the White Sox money this week?

Certainly the possibilities are out there. Still searching for starting pitching, the White Sox could turn to Madison Bumgarner, who they’ve been connected to since Wheeler’s decision. The 30-year-old three-time World Series champ could play a Jon Lester type role in a different Chicago rebuild. Though plenty have expressed concerns over what effect his 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have moving forward. There are reasons to be skeptical, just as there are reasons to be optimistic.

If the White Sox don’t want to play at the tippy top of the starting-pitching market — they haven’t been heavily linked to either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg — then Bumgarner is the biggest free-agent pitching splash out there. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel are in a similar strata of this free-agent market, but perhaps neither would generate quite as much buzz as arguably the greatest pitcher in World Series history.

The White Sox could also get splashy in their quest to fill the vacancy in right field. Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna are the two biggest names on the free-agent outfield market, and either would slot into the middle of the White Sox order. Neither would make for an ideal defensive selection, considering Castellanos’ ugly defensive stats in right field (which might exaggerate that reputation) and the fact that Ozuna is a left fielder who didn’t play a lick of right during his two years with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both, however, could make a big offensive impact. Ozuna had a ludicrously good season playing for the Miami Marlins in 2017, while the White Sox are plenty familiar with what Castellanos can do after he bludgeoned them in recent seasons with the division-rival Detroit Tigers.

The White Sox could potentially go off the board and chase someone outside of their stated positional needs, Hahn leaving everything on the table when he discussed his offseason approach at length last month. But neither paying a huge sum for Anthony Rendon nor coughing up prospects for Mookie Betts seems too likely at the moment. The fun thing about the Winter Meetings, though, is what seems likely or unlikely can change in an instant.

Speaking of trades, while Hahn signaled the White Sox have little interest in dealing their prized prospects for short-term gain, that market could provide opportunities for heretofore unmentioned splashes. Who knows if the White Sox have any interest in the biggest names being speculated about — Betts, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, etc. — but they’ve reportedly been chatting with the Los Angeles Dodgers about Joc Pederson. After supposedly trying and failing to get him in a trade last winter, his arrival on the South Side would probably be splashy enough, considering he had a career year at the dish in 2019 that included 36 home runs.

After last year’s Machado and Bryce Harper bonanzas, expectations have been raised. After the collective breakout of so many of the White Sox core players in 2019, expectations have been raised. The White Sox seem to have the ingredients to make their long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending in 2020. Money allocated for free agents is one of those ingredients. While there’s more than one way to build a championship roster, including leaning heavily on the wealth of young talent already in the White Sox possession, those raised expectations have fans craving a splash.

So will the White Sox cannonball into the Pacific Ocean this week? Stay tuned.

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White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

The rumors are true: Madison Bumgarner has thrown a lot of innings.

But let’s not pretend the only 30-year-old Bumgarner is some sort of withered husk of his former self. Mostly because he’s only six months older than me, and I’m not ready to be a withered husk yet.

Figuring out how much gas the longtime San Francisco Giant has left in the tank is certainly going to be top of mind for the White Sox after they missed out on Zack Wheeler, who took less money than the South Siders were offering to go play for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re now forced to look elsewhere in their quest to upgrade the starting rotation, and Bumgarner leads a pack of free agents still on the market, a group behind elite arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg that also includes Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

There are legitimate concerns over what kind of effect 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have on a pitcher who will get a multi-year contract. Bumgarner wasn’t the same pitcher in the last three seasons as the one he was from 2013 to 2016, when he finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four years in a row. But there were some promising developments in 2019 to suggest there’s plenty of life left in his arm.

Bumgarner made just 38 starts in 2017 and 2018, shelved with freak injuries: He injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident in 2017 and was hit in the hand with a line drive in 2018. Then he turned around and made 34 starts in 2019, the most in baseball. Those specific injuries shouldn’t ring any alarm bells when it comes to long-term health concerns.

Then there are the numbers, some of which ticked up significantly in 2019. Yes, his 3.90 ERA was a career high, but it was still lower than the 3.96 ERA Wheeler delivered. But Bumgarner finished the season with an 8.8 K/9, his highest since 2016, and a 1.9 BB/9, a dramatic drop from the 3.0 BB/9 he posted the year prior. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best of his 11-year big league career.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pointed out, Bumgarner’s fastball in 2019 was as fast as it had been since 2015, and the increase in his fastball’s spin rate — for all you spin rate fans out there — from 2018 to 2019 was the biggest jump in the game.

Of course, not everything was sunshine and lollipops. In 2019, Bumgarner finished with the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, with 43.8 percent of the batted balls he gave up hit hard. His 35.8-percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career. And while 207.2 innings — the most he threw in a season since 2016 — had a lot to do with certain stats looking large, he did give up a career-high 30 home runs and a career-high 90 earned runs.

Who knows whether Bumgarner will receive the same five-year deal that Wheeler did. Wheeler might be of similar age, just eight months younger than Bumgarner, but has a significantly less taxed throwing arm after he missed two seasons due to injury. But speculation abounds that Bumgarner will receive a similarly expensive deal, one richer than $100 million after Wheeler agreed to a $118 million pact with the Phillies — and turned down a contract offer worth more than $120 million from the White Sox.

Bumgarner, though, brings plenty Wheeler never could. He’s a three-time World Series champ and arguably the best pitcher in World Series history, with a 0.25 ERA in five Fall Classic games. That kind of winning experience would be invaluable to a team like the White Sox, whose veteran leader, while incredibly deserving of his status in the clubhouse, has played for sub-.500 teams in all six of his major league seasons.

In that regard, because their resumes are so similar, Bumgarner can be a Jon Lester of sorts for this Chicago rebuilding effort. Lester was the first big-name player to sign up with the then-rebuilding Cubs, inking a gigantic free-agent contract after a 2014 season in which the Cubs — who had yet to even call up Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber — lost 89 games. With Lester (and those youngsters) aboard, the Cubs went to the NLCS in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016.

Coincidentally, the 2019 White Sox also lost 89 games. Coincidentally, Lester was also 30 years old and had World Series rings on more than one finger when he signed his big deal. (For what it’s worth, Lester had logged a combined 1,680 regular-season and postseason innings when he joined the Cubs.) Bumgarner buying into the vision on the South Side would be oh so reminiscent of Lester doing so on the North Side.

Lester was more than just a symbol for those Cubs teams, pitching as well as — if not better than — any pitcher they’ve had (save maybe Jake Arrieta) since he signed. Bumgarner would have to do the same to have the same kind of impact, obviously. But the jumps in those statistics just in 2019 signal he could be capable of doing just that.

This isn’t to say the White Sox “lucked out” in missing out on Wheeler or that Bumgarner is guaranteed to be a slam-dunk success for whichever team he signs with. But there are still some very good options on the free-agent market, even past Cole and Strasburg — who, it should be noted, the White Sox haven’t been tied to much at all, with MLB Network’s Jon Heyman going as far to say there’s “no belief” the White Sox would be in on either.

And the White Sox, if they’re indeed pursuing Bumgarner already, are likely to face steep competition, just like they did in the Wheeler sweepstakes. The Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to the lefty, too.

There are reasons to question the pursuit of any player, Bumgarner included. But he can provide so much for a young rotation and a young team. Plus, he’s still a damn good pitcher. We’ll see if the White Sox willingness to spend the biggest bucks on Wheeler applies to their next target, too.

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White Sox free agent focus: Targeting playoff experience with Madison Bumgarner

White Sox free agent focus: Targeting playoff experience with Madison Bumgarner

Baseball free agency is heating up as the weather gets colder. This week we are breaking down 10 potential free-agent targets for the White Sox ahead of the Winter Meetings.

Madison Bumgarner, LH SP, Giants

Age: 30

2019 salary: $12,000,000

2019 stats: 207.2 IP, 3.90 ERA, 203 K, 43 BB, 191 hits (30 HR)

What Bumgarner would bring to the White Sox

Perhaps the most accomplished playoff pitcher of all time. In Bumgarner's 11 years with the Giants he was a massive part of their even year success this decade. He won three rings with the Giants (2010, 2012, 2014), including a World Series MVP in 2014. He did all that before his 26th birthday.

In his career, Bumgarner has a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 playoff innings with an 8-3 record. He has three playoff shutouts in 14 playoff starts. Oh, and he has a 0.25 ERA in the World Series in 36 innings. One run in 36 innings in the World Series.

All that playoff success is where Bumgarner made his name and he did so at such a young age (his MLB debut came just over a month after he turned 20) that it's easy to forget that he's still just 30 and should have plenty of years left.

How many 30-year-olds who appear to be locks for the Hall of Fame have ever been available in free agency? For all the hype Bryce Harper and Manny Machado had in free agency last year for being young, elite talents, neither had anywhere near the career accomplishments of Bumgarner.

The counterpoint to that is that Bumgarner has a lot of mileage on his arm. He has thrown 1948.1 innings combined in the regular season and playoffs. He has thrown at least 111 innings in each of the past 10 seasons with seven 200-inning seasons. Bumgarner was one of 15 pitchers to surpass 200 innings this past season.

His performance has slipped a bit in his past three years after posting ERAs under 3.00 from 2013-2016. Still, he has been an above average pitcher. Last year's 3.90 ERA was the lowest ERA+ of his career at 107, which still rates as above average.

Bumgarner would bring an experienced, solid pitcher to the staff. He likely wouldn't be a franchise-changer like Gerrit Cole could be wherever he goes, but Bumgarner is likely to be a dependable option. Plus, no team wants to go against him in the playoffs.

What it would take to get him

The Giants signed Bumgarner to a six-year deal worth $35.56 million early in the 2012 season. That bought out some of his arbitration years and early free agency years. The Giants picked up contract options each of the last two seasons for $12 million. This is the first time he's hitting free agency.

Given his track record and proven dependability, Bumgarner could get around $20 million per year over multiple years in a quickly escalating pitching market. That means the White Sox would have to give him a record-setting deal for the club.

Why it makes sense for the White Sox

Bumgarner isn't going to require the record-setting money that Cole and Stephen Strasburg are expecting to get. That means the White Sox should be able to be in on the negotiations.

The flip side is that there will be plenty of competition. Who doesn't want arguably the best postseason pitcher ever at age 30 who has been nothing but consistent in his career?

The White Sox haven't been mentioned much in rumors around Bumgarner, but he would add experience and reliability to the rotation.

Latest rumors

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