Everything Rick Hahn’s front office does these days has one goal in mind: Do what’s in the best long-term interest of the White Sox.
Certainly, signing Bryce Harper to a decade-long contract would fall into that category.
The White Sox are reportedly interested, to the point that they apparently sent Hall of Famer Jim Thome to Las Vegas to try to sell Harper, the biggest fish in this winter’s free-agent pond, on the benefits of playing 81 home games on the South Side of Chicago each summer. That level of commitment in the wooing process would lead any observer to believe that the White Sox are willing to offer a monstrous contract, and Harper is expected to receive the biggest one of those the baseball world has ever seen.
But despite all that, only one team will win the Harper sweepstakes. No matter how good the White Sox chances might be, there’s the possibility they won’t get him. After all, the competition seems stiff, with the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers also mentioned as having met with or planning to meet with Harper. And the group of teams making their pitch figures to be much larger than just those four.
So what if the White Sox don’t get Harper? Is the next step simply to move down to the next name on the list of available free-agent outfielders? It might not be that easy.
Remember, Hahn’s focus is squarely on the long term, and he remains steadfastly committed to the rebuilding effort he started around this time two years ago, when he traded away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton for all those highly ranked prospects. Signing Harper would obviously change the rebuilding process, but it would in no way blow it up. In fact, it stands to reason that the only way the White Sox could successfully lure Harper to the South Side — apart from the proverbial dump truck full of money, of course — is to get him to buy into the future all those prospects have made so bright. But the same cannot be said for many of the other outfielders on the free-agent market.
Why am I talking outfielders? Why not mention the left side of the infield, where Manny Machado could play for the next decade? Why not talk about starting pitching, where Dallas Keuchel could anchor the rotation for years to come?
Certainly the “long term” discussion applies to talents like those, too. But the White Sox have a hole to fill in right field after non-tendering Avisail Garcia last week. Many of the internal options — Nicky Delmonico, Leury Garcia, Ryan Cordell — are all coming off disappointing seasons, with top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez likely ticketed for left field once he reaches the majors and Daniel Palka looking like the team’s everyday designated hitter after Matt Davidson was non-tendered, as well. That leads to external options and the free-agent market.
But while Harper is the no-brainer solution, if he ends up elsewhere, other options might not be as attractive to the White Sox as they are to their fans. Players like Michael Brantley, Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen might seem like fine consolation prizes to solidify right field in 2019 and 2020, but none of those guys carries the long-term value Harper does. None of them carries the long-term value as the prospects the White Sox already have, even if those prospects won’t by major leaguers in the short term.
In other words, perhaps it’s Harper (or a long-term impact like him) or bust. Or, as Hahn might phrase it, a long-term solution is the only solution.
"I do feel, as we look at this market — and obviously I've seen or heard the vast amount of rumors about our activity — I think it's important to note that we are by no means losing sight of what we're trying to accomplish over the long term. The long term remains the priority. We aren't looking to do stopgap fixes, so to speak,” Hahn said on a conference call last week. “In this free-agent market, as I alluded to before, there are potential opportunities to convert on premium talent that would fit along with what we're trying to develop for the long term.
“Usually when you look at a rebuild, entering Year 3, as we are, isn't necessarily the time teams push ahead in a winter and try to advance things and accelerate things unnaturally, and that's not what we're going to do. We're going to stick with the long-term plan. But if, in fact, there is an opportunity to convert on unique talent when it comes available that fits that long-term plan, then yes we're going to be aggressive and fully explore it.
“But short of those opportunities, we're not going to just aggressively look to do things that don't necessarily fit with where we are as an organization and what we're trying to accomplish over the long term. We've worked too hard to put ourselves in a quality position long term, and we're not going to sacrifice that in one offseason just to make some headlines in the winter."
There are arguments to be made that adding Brantley or Jones or McCutchen or whomever would have its long-term benefits. All three of those guys, for example, would bring a veteran presence and winning experience to a young clubhouse. And maybe the White Sox share that opinion. But the point is that while Harper is a slam-dunk as a long-term piece of the puzzle, there might not be many who fit that description on the market right now.
Machado certainly does. Keuchel would, with the right contract. But depending on what the bidding wars end up looking like, bringing in an older player on a shorter deal might just not make sense for the White Sox, even if it makes them a better team next year or the year after. If it doesn’t make them a championship-caliber team three and four and five years down the road, it might not end up happening.
Of course, it’s certainly worth mentioning that starting pitching might be exempt from such parameters, what with the two holes in the rotation heading into 2019. In those terms, there’s no such thing as “bust” because the White Sox will need five starting pitchers, no matter where they come from. But certainly Hahn and his front office will be thinking about the long term in those moves, too.
Those wanting Harper, the 26-year-old expected to ink a long-term deal, it sounds like the White Sox would be all about such a signing. Those wanting short-term plugs, what Hahn called “stopgap fixes,” you might be left wanting.