GLENDALE, Ariz. — No matter how much the players in the clubhouse want to move on from Manny Mania, there’s no doubting that Manny Machado’s decision to play for the San Diego Padres — or rather, his decision not to play for the White Sox — has been the defining storyline of the first couple weeks of spring training here at Camelback Ranch.
The White Sox will move on. The front office will dust itself off and go after big names again. The players will play with a 25-man roster and nine guys in the batting order, just like they would have. And, yes, even the angry corners of White Sox Twitter will forget Machado one day, which figures to be easy to do once Eloy Jimenez is crushing homers out of Guaranteed Rate Field.
But the 2019 season and those after it will be viewed through this lens, one where the White Sox missed out on an opportunity to sign one of the best players in baseball. Machado opting for the sunny skies of Southern California does not preclude the White Sox from living out Rick Hahn’s wildest rebuilding dreams, nor does it mean a premium free agent will never sign on the South Side. But it does have its obvious effects on the present and future of this franchise.
Here’s a look at some of those effects.
The White Sox will not be as good in 2019 as they would’ve been with Machado
Obvious, I know.
Machado would’ve done a lot of things for the White Sox, and the biggest allure of signing him was that he would’ve done those things for the better part of the next decade. While fans would have been amped to see Machado in action for the 2019 season, he was a White Sox target because as a 26-year-old superstar, he meshed pretty perfectly with their long-term plans.
Had Machado signed with the White Sox, though, he would have made them better in the immediate. He’s coming off a career year in which he slashed .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs and 107 RBIs. Adding that to any lineup is going to make a pretty big difference.
And while Hahn has talked often about the idea of it being perhaps “a year early” for the still-rebuilding White Sox to be jumping at a free agent that would help vault them into contention mode, a weak AL Central and American League in general provided — and perhaps still does provide — an opportunity to make a surprise run at the postseason. With Machado in the fold, that might have been an even more realistic possibility.
It’s not to say the White Sox still couldn’t threaten to be in the wild-card mix later on this season. But without Machado, that seems to be a significantly taller task. Hahn made many noteworthy additions, but this roster is made up of many of the same players who lost 100 games last season. Another developmental year wouldn’t be at all surprising and would in fact be expected if you look at the recent history of successful rebuilds. The Cubs lost an average of 95 games a season in the first three years of Theo Epstein’s rebuild. The Houston Astros lost an average of 104 games a season in the four years leading up to their ascension to perennial power.
Without Machado, another developmental year — even one with highlights like the arrivals of Jimenez and Dylan Cease — looks more likely than a year early surprise.
Yoan Moncada is the third baseman of the present and future
The biggest on-field development of camp to this point is the White Sox moving full steam ahead with switching Moncada to third base, which was discussed as an option throughout the offseason but never committed to until position players reported to Glendale and Moncada started taking ground balls at the hot corner.
Machado would have been the obvious fit there had he signed with the White Sox, and his saying he’ll play third with the Padres (who are set to install former White Sox prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. as their shortstop of the future) pretty much confirms that he would have played there on the South Side, too.
Instead, it’ll be Moncada, who moves over from second base a season after committing 21 errors, the fourth-highest total in baseball last season. Rick Renteria has been extremely positive about Moncada’s work there so far this spring (it’s only been a couple days, and there’ll be a ton more to go on once games start this weekend), and the White Sox are hopeful Moncada can handle the job, with Renteria going as far to say that the increased focus Moncada will need to play third will help him offensively after he struck out 217 times last season.
We’ll see how things go in both aspects of Moncada’s game, but one thing is for sure: Without Machado, the team’s future at third base remains a question mark. There’s no slam-dunk answer there for the long term. Moncada could easily become that, of course, as the White Sox are still incredibly high on his ceiling and his future. But it’s a mystery as of this moment. Thanks to Jake Burger’s double Achilles tears last year, there are no obvious answers in the minor leagues, either. So it’s Moncada.
Machado passing on the White Sox also means we’ll likely be talking about third base again next offseason, no matter how well Moncada might do this season. Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon are part of a loaded free-agent class.
For better or worse, we’ll have to do this free-agent thing again next offseason
I don’t know what the White Sox big board looks like, so I don’t know if Machado is their favorite player in baseball or not. Meaning, maybe any addition from here on out, no matter how big a name, is a consolation prize, or maybe it gives them an opportunity to chase someone they like better. Regardless of which of those two things is true, we’ll likely have to go through all this free-agent business again with the White Sox next offseason.
Thankfully, the class is jam-packed, featuring the aforementioned Arenado and Rendon as well as Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Verlander, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner, Didi Gregorius and Marcell Ozuna. You can spend forever debating whether any of those guys are as good as Machado. But there’s little argument over the fact that those are a lot of very good baseball players.
Hahn has promised perennial aggressiveness from the White Sox on the free-agent market and in the pursuits of the biggest names and best players in the game. Here’s what he said at SoxFest:
"We belong at the table in these negotiations, we belong as part of negotiations for premium talent. And regardless what happens over the next several weeks with either of these two players (Machado and the still-jobless Bryce Harper), we plan to be at the table and continue to attempt to convert on these guys."
Fans currently stinging over the White Sox getting outbid by the Padres for Machado might choose not to believe Hahn’s promise until they see it in action. But Hahn, in his comments all offseason long and here at spring training, has promised that the White Sox will utilize their financial flexibility in the pursuits of big-name talent. So expect to see them as a featured player next winter as much as they were this winter.
But how will that process be different?
Fans right now are unconvinced that the White Sox will ever be willing to spend enough to land a marquee free agent like Machado, and Machado taking the $300 million guaranteed over the $250 million guaranteed in the White Sox offer has done little to change what Hahn has referred to as a “false narrative.”
The White Sox certainly believed their offer was good enough to get Machado to the South Side, that much was clear by the visible emotions of both Hahn and Kenny Williams on Tuesday. But after losing out in this sweepstakes, will they be able to change that narrative next time around?
Unfortunately, the answer is only if they land a big fish. Certainly, the White Sox were not “cheap” in their pursuit of Machado, as many fans have accused them of being. A commitment to spend $350 million on a player is, by definition, not cheap.
But if they’re in on Arenado or Rendon or Bumgarner or Martinez or any of the players listed above, will they approach things differently? Hahn said there is no magic number of a limit where the White Sox will not spend and said there is no overarching organizational philosophy on opt-outs. And he’s promised that the money saved up for runs at these free agents will be spent, not “sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest.”
Hahn and his front office is rarely one to succumb to pressure from antsy fans. If that was the case, Jimenez would have been a big leaguer long ago. But you wonder how much the desire to add a “finishing piece,” something that’s been part of the rebuilding plan all along, will play into next winter’s pursuits or trade talks at other points in the calendar.
Those aren’t answers we have right now. They’ll come out on the next free-agent go-round.
The White Sox will definitely take their time with their top prospects
There was little doubt this was going to happen, regardless of Machado’s decision. But there was a possibility, as discussed above, that Machado could’ve improved things enough to quicken the timeline of the team’s contention phase. And if that were the case, would the White Sox have felt the need to exhibit a little less patience and try to get some of their top prospects to the majors a little quicker?
That question can’t be answered with anything more than a “maybe,” but now that Machado is in San Diego, it would seem the White Sox will most definitely stick to their rebuilding playbook.
Cease is probably the player this applies to the most. All signs point to Jimenez arriving in the major leagues a couple weeks into the 2019 season, so his timeline is unaffected by this whole thing. Cease, though, starts the 2019 season in a similar spot to where Michael Kopech was a year ago. He’ll likely spend start at Triple-A Charlotte after a dazzling 2018 split between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, but the White Sox will give him every opportunity there, just like they did with Kopech last year. Kopech didn’t make his big league debut until August. It seems Cease is on a similar timeline, especially now that, without Machado, there might be no playoff race to leap into. We’ll have to see about that one.
Luis Robert is still so inexperienced in the minor leagues after last year’s injury-plagued campaign. Dane Dunning will be eased into things coming back from his injury; he’s not even in big league camp this spring. Nick Madrigal is a bit more of a question mark, considering the “best all-around player in college baseball” should be able to move through the system a little quicker than someone who wasn’t described in that fashion. But there’s no reason to rush him. Zack Collins could make his big league debut in 2019, but perhaps not until when rosters expand in September.
But, again, with no reason to bump these guys along quicker than necessary, why rush them? Especially if Machado’s absence means the rebuild is on a less rapid timeline.
Does Machado’s decision give current White Sox a chip on the shoulder?
White Sox players were pretty committed to one message on Machado throughout the offseason: It’d be great if Machado came to the South Side, but if he doesn’t, no big deal.
Not exactly the same way White Sox fans feel right now.
But these players have spoken for the last couple weeks about how much faith they have in the current roster — and how much urgency might be seeping in. They’ve heard about the future for a long time and think maybe it’s time to start talking about the present, too.
“I’m sick of losing,” Lucas Giolito said.
“There's a point in time where it’s s**t for get off the pot,” Carlos Rodon said.
And Tim Anderson has been leading the charge. He was the most vocal during the White Sox pursuit of Machado, defensive and adamant about his desire to remain the team’s starting shortstop. In the wake of Machado’s decision, he stood up for his group.
“We’re going to be South Side regardless. Nobody’s decision determines what we’ve got going on in this locker room," he said. "I feel we have a great group of guys here. We’re going to do something special. The White Sox are moving in the right direction. One decision won’t dictate our season.
“We’re going to keep rolling. Either ride with us or get run over. We know who’s on the boat with us and which way we want to sail.”
They won’t necessarily admit to Machado’s decision giving them added hunger, added motivation or an added chip on their collective shoulder. But these White Sox have something they want to prove. And in addition to proving it to fans and observers who are still waiting for 2020, maybe they can prove it to Machado, too.
“He might have,” Anderson said when asked if Machado missed the boat by not signing up with the White Sox.