The White Sox are in the market for starting pitching this winter.
And while fans' attention is rightfully turned toward Trevor Bauer, the free-agent market isn't the only market to shop in.
A few recent rumors could point to a big pitching splash coming in via trade. And while the White Sox, specifically, haven't been connected to any of the reportedly available big names, the existence of some non-Bauer options to upgrade the South Side starting staff means potentially multiple ways for Rick Hahn's front office to address what is arguably the team's biggest need — especially considering that only one team will end up signing Bauer.
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So when it comes to backup plans, how does the 2018 AL Cy Young winner sound? The Tampa Bay Rays are supposedly open to the idea of dealing their ace, according to MLB.com's Mark Feinsand. Trading for Snell would accomplish the same things as signing Bauer would for the White Sox, who would add one of the game's best arms alongside their already sterling 1-2 punch of Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, making for a championship-caliber rotation.
Snell was at the front of one of those in 2020, going to the World Series with the Rays. He was famously lifted while dealing against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the decisive sixth game of the Fall Classic. Snell was incredible during his Cy Young season in 2018, with a 1.89 ERA and 221 strikeouts. In 2019, he made just 23 starts while dealing with an injury. In 2020, he had a 3.24 ERA in 11 regular-season starts before starring in the postseason, with a 3.03 ERA in six playoff starts. Snell allowed three runs in 10 innings, striking out 18 in his two World Series starts.
The 27-year-old Snell is the highest paid player on the budget-conscious Rays' roster, with Feinsand pointing out that trading him would be the Rays' best shot at freeing up payroll. The win-now White Sox have the flexibility to add such a salary, thanks in part to the affordable long-term deals for their young core players. Snell would also fit into their long-term planning, under contract for another three seasons.
Under team control for the same amount of time is Sonny Gray, who the Cincinnati Reds are open to trading, according to The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal. It would certainly smart for the Reds to lose Bauer to free agency and deal Gray away in the same winter, but the White Sox wouldn't complain if it meant Gray joining their rotation.
The 31-year-old Gray was an All Star in 2019, a season he finished with a 2.87 ERA and 205 strikeouts in his first season with the Reds. He had a 3.70 ERA in 11 regular-season starts in 2020. Gray hasn't been quite as dominant as Snell or Bauer, perhaps, but he's been around for a while and would accomplish the White Sox goal of finding a dependable starting-pitching option to pair with Giolito and Keuchel to form a rotation that could go toe to toe with any other in a playoff series.
Also supposedly available on the trade market is Lance Lynn, who has put up some very good numbers for the Texas Rangers the last two seasons, with a 3.57 ERA in 46 starts. He's 33 years old and only under team control for one more season.
Of course, as Hahn is always quick to remind, anything the White Sox will be able to do will come down to cost, and building an enticing trade package can sometimes be trickier than simply throwing money at a free agent like Bauer. The White Sox no longer have to hoard prospects after ascending out of rebuilding mode in 2020. That said, they would seem unlikely to part with first-round picks like Andrew Vaughn or Garrett Crochet, who could both play big roles in 2021. But immediate championship expectations — especially when it comes to someone with their own long-term value, such as Snell — could change that thinking.
Remember, too, that this offseason is expected to be anything but predictable in the wake of a shortened 2020 campaign without paying customers in the stands. That could have teams looking to save anywhere possible and hold onto their more affordable assets, including the kinds of young players who typically make up those return packages.
But being in this stage in their rebuilding project has long been part of the White Sox plans, and that means being prepared to make those types of decisions in trade talks as well as spending on free agents. The choices past Bauer on the free-agent market aren't the most attractive — and are diminishing by the move — but rumors like these show there's more than one way to upgrade the rotation. And the trade market might be where the White Sox find their solution.