SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Rick Hahn will, along with the rest of baseball’s team-runners, make the trip to the desert this week for the general managers meetings.
Hahn will speak to reporters for the first time since his end-of-season press conference in September. And while not too much has happened in terms of player movement in the perennially slow-to-get-going baseball offseason, his comments could shine some new light on what the White Sox are hoping to accomplish this winter.
We know Hahn’s front office will look to plug holes in right field, at designated hitter and in the starting rotation. But there’s a lot about the specifics that we don’t know. Hahn’s not the type to come out say exactly which free agents the White Sox will attempt to sign, so don't expect that. But his answers to questions this week could provide some clues about what kinds of players the team will look to add to the mix.
Here are five things we could learn about the White Sox offseason.
1. Are the White Sox still focused solely on long-term additions? And will that prevent them from signing potentially helpful short-term pieces?
Hahn has long preached a long-term vision during this rebuilding project, and rightfully so. It’s that valuing the long term over the short term that has created the White Sox exciting young core and put them in position to potentially vault into contention mode in the near future. But that dedication to the long term has disappointed certain fans who have craved additions that would make the team more competitive in the immediate.
The idea that the White Sox will continue to try to enhance their success over a long period of time isn't going anywhere, but Hahn said the White Sox are moving into the “next phase” of the rebuild. Rick Renteria said that “it’s time to turn the page.” Lucas Giolito said this: “Our goal will 100-percent be making the playoffs and getting as deep as we can. If we don’t, then I don’t think we’ve come close to what we should be doing.”
Does all that declaration mean that those short-term additions are suddenly on the table?
Hahn refuses to set specific expectations for next season until he knows what his roster looks like, a wise stance. But he’s also pledged aggressiveness and that “the money will be spent” on premium free agents. The kind of move he’s envisioned as a goal of his rebuilding project — like the ultimately failed attempt to land Manny Machado last winter — has always seemed an obvious long-term move, one that will fuel the White Sox for years to come. The best players in the game rarely sign short-term contracts, and teams often want to lock those players up with long-term deals that will extend their championship window.
But once that window opens, short-term moves can be mighty beneficial.
Insight into this thinking will apply to how the White Sox go about numerous things this winter. For example, let’s look at that vacant designated hitter spot. J.D. Martinez seemed like the perfect long-term fit, but he opted to stay with the Boston Red Sox. So does Hahn turn to a short-term option like Edwin Encarnacion to plug that hole? Or does that kind of short-term move — one that would benefit a run at a title in 2020 and nothing more — still not make sense for these White Sox?
2. Are the White Sox in a position to consider a trade for only one guaranteed season of one of the best players in baseball?
This kind of goes with the first item, but the Red Sox quest to get under the luxury tax has made them the most notable sellers in the game. Martinez. Mookie Betts. Jackie Bradley Jr. Andrew Benintendi. David Price. Nathan Eovaldi. Those are some pretty gigantic names, and every one of them has been speculated about potentially leaving the Bay State in the name of fiscal responsibility.
The first two names on that list are arguably the best designated hitter and right fielder in the game, respectively, so perhaps the White Sox, given their positional needs, should be interested. But both Martinez and Betts would be acquired with just one guaranteed season of club control, making any deal a risky proposition.
Part of the reason Martinez opted to stick with his current contract is because he can do all this again next offseason, deciding whether he wants to become a free agent or not. So, like 2019 was, maybe 2020 is the final year before he seeks a new multi-year deal. The Red Sox couldn’t get rid of his $23.75 million just by wishing it away, but they might be able to via trade. The White Sox seemed to have a perfect solution to their DH question ready for the inking, but it didn’t happen. Doesn’t mean it still can’t.
Betts, meanwhile, is projected to receive $27.7 million through the arbitration process, perhaps pricing him out of Boston's already packed payroll. Well, he would look pretty good in right field at The Rate. He’s a year removed from an MVP season, and the White Sox sure could use one of the best hitters in baseball in their lineup. Though he seems to be set on reaching free agency when it rolls around for him next winter.
Neither would be guaranteed to stick around past 2020. So is Hahn ready to ship some of that carefully collected prospect capital away to Boston to make a big splash that might dry up once the 2020 season’s over — with potentially nothing to show for it but a short-term surge in shirsey sales?
It’s all part of the long-term-vs.-short-term game the White Sox have been playing for a while now. Prior to this winter, the answer was always an easy one. But with increased expectations come tougher decisions. The question is do Hahn’s expectations for the 2020 season warrant that big of a gamble?
3. What’s the deal with the starting rotation?
(Note: That is to be read in your best Jerry Seinfeld impression.)
There are a ton of things we could learn this week about the White Sox pursuit of pitching, something Hahn has hinted was coming for some time. While he stocked the farm system with arms that seemed primed to battle each other for spots in the much discussed rotation of the future, things haven’t exactly panned out that way — yet.
Tommy John surgeries for Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert slowed their respective rises. Giolito blossomed into an All Star and an ace, but only after putting up the worst statistics in baseball a year earlier. Dylan Cease’s first taste of the majors didn’t go much better than Giolito’s. Reynaldo Lopez continues to pinball back and forth between top-of-the-rotation promise and a guy Renteria needs to remind that he’s pitching.
All of those pitchers could still reach their high potentials, but the general mystery over what comes next for any of them — not to mention the glaring lack of major league ready starting-pitching depth in 2019 — put starting pitching at the top of Hahn’s offseason to-do list.
But here are some questions:
What kind of starting pitching is Hahn looking for?
There are two huge names at the top of the market, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, who figure to command contracts that last much of the next decade. They’d be rotation-toppers, and if the White Sox are interested, they could install a bona fide, Hall-of-Fame type ace in the No. 1 spot for the foreseeable future, making for a pretty terrifying 1-2 punch when you add in Giolito. But at least one report has indicated they might be more interested in veteran types like Dallas Keuchel and Cole Hamels. That leaps over the idea of them chasing another veteran in Madison Bumgarner. Or are they searching for younger but less top-of-the-rotation arms like Jake Odorizzi and Zack Wheeler?
How many starting pitchers is Hahn looking for?
He slotted Giolito, Cease and Lopez into 2020 rotation spots back in September, leaving two spots unclaimed. But Kopech will start spring training with no restrictions after his Tommy John recovery and figures to be slotted into one of the vacancies. Will he be on an innings limit of some kind? Dunning, Rodon, Lambert, they’ll be back at some point. How much do the White Sox expect to get from those guys? And how much opportunity will Lopez continue to get if his unpredictability stretches into a season with more meaningful games? All that works into how many starting pitchers the White Sox will target this winter.
How will the White Sox address their depth issues without a repeat of the Ervin Santana experiment?
Santana’s addition during spring training seemed like a fine low-risk move — until there was no reward. He made all of three starts and was crushed in every one of them. That was a valiant attempt at providing another big league arm, but it didn’t work and, along with Rodon’s season-ending injury, opened the floodgates for the parade of ineffective fifth starters that lasted until season’s end. There needs to be more depth and more reliable depth, but that’s easier said than done. The White Sox can’t sign six guys to big league contracts, mash them together with their in-house starting staff and then just put the rest in the bullpen. Quality pitchers aren’t going to sign up for a job they might not have. Now, as Santana’s signing last spring showed, there should be options available who will. But will that create the same problem all over again?
With the starting-pitching market seemingly so rich this offseason, there are a lot of directions in which the White Sox could go. But which one will it be? Maybe we'll find out this week.
4. Will the White Sox deviate from their stated objectives to make a big splash?
Right field. Designated hitter. Starting pitching. You’re probably getting sick of me talking about those three positions at this point. But, as I recently chronicled in great detail, there are some pretty big names on the free-agent market who don’t fall into those three categories. Will the White Sox close the door on those opportunities from the outset, or will they rearrange their priorities to capitalize on such an opportunity?
Hahn showed just last offseason he’s willing to chase a player who plays a position the team has filled in the name of adding that “finishing piece” to his rebuilding puzzle. The pursuit of Machado irked incumbent shortstop Tim Anderson, and perhaps it’s Yoan Moncada who gets bugged by the White Sox chasing Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson, or James McCann getting miffed the South Siders are going after Yasmani Grandal.
Hahn essentially answered this question already, asked in September if position would be a deal-breaker.
“The talent pool is a little different free agent-wise this offseason, but I'm not going to say we won't be creative in a couple elements, whether it's via trade or free agency,” Hahn said. “Our roster does have a little bit of flexibility in it, and we hope in the coming years to have more flexibility built in in terms of different positions that guys can go out and play.”
But maybe there’s more to learn. Moncada has supposedly told Renteria he can play the outfield. Does that make a pursuit of a free-agent third baseman more likely? What about at catcher? How do the White Sox view their long-term future there, considering McCann’s All-Star first half yielded to a far less appealing second half and Zack Collins is very much still an unknown after only a couple months of big league action in 2019?
5. What is the latest with Jose Abreu?
Seemingly the most predictable part of the White Sox offseason was the assumed re-signing of Abreu, who spent the entirety of the 2019 campaign giddily describing how badly he wanted to remain on the South Side and join the youngsters in their planned ascent to contender status.
Well, a multi-year deal keeping Abreu in what Jerry Reinsdorf supposedly told the first baseman is the only uniform he’ll ever wear still seems the obvious outcome. But this situation is not without its interesting wrinkles, particularly after the team extended Abreu a qualifying offer last week. It still strikes as the White Sox simply covering their bases and lining themselves up to receive a draft pick in the unlikely event Abreu winds up somewhere else. But now there’s talk of a potentially weak market for Abreu and with it, some incentive to take the one-year contract worth $17.8 million.
It’s extremely rare that a player accepts a qualifying offer, though there’s speculation Abreu might. We'll find out his decision this week, as his 10-day window to accept or reject started last Monday.
Again, the most likely result remains him inking a new multi-year contract to stay on the South Side. But, as Hahn pointed at as a possibility back in September, Abreu actually made it to free agency and remains not a White Sock at the moment. Will that soon change? Maybe the general manager has some updates.