LAS VEGAS — The White Sox were the talk of the Winter Meetings.
Imagine that a year ago. Heck, imagine that a couple months ago.
They’re coming off a 100-loss season, not expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2019 and remain in the thick of their rebuilding effort. But that hasn’t stopped the White Sox from being uber aggressive this winter. It hasn’t stopped them from trying to sign not just a free agent but the free agent, Bryce Harper, to a monstrous contract that could be the biggest baseball has ever seen.
But here’s the biggest thing worth learning about the White Sox right now: This is all part of the plan.
"We're excited to be discussing impactful moves for the long term,” general manager Rick Hahn said Thursday, the final day of these Winter Meetings. “We've made no secret, it's been a tough couple years on everyone associated with the White Sox, an understandably tough couple of years given what we're trying to accomplish for the long term. And it's good to have a seat at the table on some large, impactful moves.
“Now it doesn't necessarily mean that anything's going to come together. We still have a fair amount of work to do, and even if we are able to convert on something big, there's still going to be work behind it over the coming years to get us where we need to be."
A quick glance at the situation, at the win-loss record might make it seem like the White Sox have lost interest in rebuilding, that they’ve decided to completely flip the script in one winter by backing a dump truck full of money up to Harper’s driveway here in Vegas and saying, “Come make us a winner right now because we are sick of losing.”
But that’s not what’s happening.
Is there frustration over a combined 195 losses in the last two seasons? You betcha. But the courtship of Harper — and that of his fellow mega free agent, Manny Machado — isn’t an act of desperation. It’s a step in this process that Rick Hahn and his front office began at these Winter Meetings two years ago, when they traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton for the first of many highly touted prospects.
While those prospects have always been the foundation and the majority of the roster of the future, there were always going to be “finishing pieces,” as Hahn calls them, players that would have to be brought in from outside the organization to vault the White Sox from rebuilders to contenders. And those pieces were always going to have to fit with the long-term plan, with the bright future, with all those prospects.
Harper and Machado are exactly that, even though the timeline might be a bit wonky. Either 26-year-old superstar would provide a centerpiece for the young talent to grow up around, and all combined, the plan is they would develop into the perennial championship contender this process was designed to create.
Why now, though? Well, it comes down to opportunity. Harper and Machado won’t be free agents next winter. This is when the White Sox have the opportunity to get one of them, and they’re trying to take advantage. Does it mean they’ll be a playoff team next year? No, probably not. But the pitch is that over the course of what could be a decade-long contract, there will be multiple playoff appearances and a chance to win multiple championships alongside Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Luis Robert and plenty of others.
If the rebuilding process is a years-long to-do list, one of the items is bringing in a player like this — or trying to, at the very least.
It still might seem surprising, but jumping into the Harper and Machado derbies with both feet does nothing to take the White Sox off the track they set for themselves two years ago.
“It’s good that there’s excitement,” Hahn said. “At the same time, we are taking an approach where we will remain consistent with what our vision has been for this team for the long term. If something or somethings come together in the coming weeks that reinforce that long-term vision, you know we will act on it.”
But it’s equally important to remember that the White Sox rebuild does not hinge on the decision of Harper or Machado. Harper could wind up in Philadelphia, Machado could wind up in New York, and the White Sox bright future won’t be dimmed. Jimenez could wind up being just as impactful when he arrives early on in the 2019 campaign. And then there’s another loaded free-agent class next winter. And there’s the possibility of trading from a position of prospect strength for an elite talent.
The pitch seems to be working.
Obviously, money is going to play a huge factor and the financial flexibility the rebuild has created might end up making a bigger difference than the attraction of playing alongside this collection of young players for the next 10 years.
But the White Sox are in this position because of what they’ve done over the last two years. In cultivating a bright future and positioning themselves financially, they’ve become a team that is, at the very least, worth considering as a destination for baseball’s best players. That’s great news for White Sox fans who keep up to date with all the latest rumors. It’s even better news for the White Sox, no matter how this Harper sweepstakes turns out.
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