LAS VEGAS — Things are undoubtedly changing for the White Sox.
These aren't last year's Winter Meetings, where general manager Rick Hahn preached patience and was just a month away from declaring 2018 the toughest part of the team's rebuilding process. These are a different kind of Winter Meetings, where the White Sox are reportedly in on Bryce Harper, in on Manny Machado and cranking up the aggressiveness on the heels of a 100-loss season.
Make no mistake, though, despite all these rumors tying them to baseball's best players, the rebuild is still in full swing. But it's because of the progress they've seen in that rebuilding process that the White Sox feel so confident in being aggressive this winter. Hahn is confident his sales pitch to the Harpers and Machados of the baseball world — of course, he won't mention their names, specifically, in his chats with reporters — is a winning one: Join this team and within a few years, all that minor league talent will grow up around you and this will be a perennial championship contender.
It's not a reaction to 2018's ugly win-loss record. This isn't desperation. This was all part of the plan, to lure top free agents to the South Side with the promise of future success. As Hahn said last month at the GM Meetings, no one should be surprised to hear the White Sox linked to these elite players. The reason? The team is seeing the light at the end of this rebuilding tunnel.
To Hahn, that means that the wave of prospects he envisions washing up at Guaranteed Rate Field is getting closer. Eloy Jimenez figures to be with the major league team a few weeks into the 2019 season. Dylan Cease could be on the same path Michael Kopech was in 2018 and possibly arrive even earlier in the calendar than Kopech did. The catching tandem of the future could be knocking on the door at Triple-A Charlotte, and the bulk of talent that made Class A Winston-Salem so intriguing in 2018 could have the same effect at Double-A Birmingham in 2019.
Progress. It might not be the first thought in White Sox fans' heads as their favorite team keeps getting linked to Harper and Machado. But without that progress in the minor league system, there might not be as much aggressiveness. In other words, it's a heck of a lot easier to sell a future that you're able to see coming.
"Talking about the light at the end of the tunnel means that we're starting to see some guys get to the Double-A level and above that are going to help us in the not so distant future," Hahn explained Monday night. "Obviously we've promoted guys from Double-A before, so once they're there, they're established.
"You're starting to see a team where not only next year will you have obviously (Yoan) Moncada, (Tim Anderson) and (Reynaldo Lopez) and a full year of (Carlos) Rodon — knock on wood — but you're going to see, in all probability, Eloy Jimenez at some point and Dylan Cease. And then you're going to have at Triple-A (Zack) Collins and (Seby) Zavala. And you're going to have at Double-A a prospect-laden Birmingham team, any of number of whom could factor in, conceivably, at some point in the 2019 season. Might not. We're not going to rush this thing. We're going to let them, give them all the time they need where they're to the point where they're ready to succeed in Chicago. But they're in shouting distance.
"It's starting to get a little bit closer. We're not going to move it artificially. That's the way we can mess this thing up, to start rushing some guys or start making some shortsighted commitments that compromise our flexibility in the future, but it's getting closer."
Perhaps it's easy to play devil's advocate and point out the host of injuries to White Sox minor leaguers in 2018 and the effect all that health uncertainty could have on the timeline of this whole enterprise. Kopech will miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Dane Dunning has his own elbow injury to deal with. Luis Robert is healthy now but was robbed of much of a year of development time with thumb injuries. Jake Burger didn't play a lick in 2018 because of a pair of Achilles tears. Alec Hansen was the organization's No. 2 pitching prospect at this time last year before a lost season in 2018 due to a forearm injury and a demotion to Class A not long after his return to the mound.
But those always-entertaining 2020 lineup projections are still full of guys now making their way into the upper levels of the system. They're maybe months, a year or just a tad more away from cracking the big leagues.
And so the light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel is not Harper or Machado, though adding a 26-year-old superstar who fits in with the long-term plan certainly gets the White Sox closer to that point. The light is those rebuilding plans finally starting to come to fruition, the ascent of all that talent acquired when Hahn's front office traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana. And because of that, there's a future worth selling to the best players in the game.
It also means there's a future with or without Harper and Machado, a fact that shouldn't be lost on anyone should the White Sox not win either free-agent sweepstakes.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.