Lance Lynn. Dylan Bundy. Robbie Ray.
They were all tied to the White Sox in Saturday-morning trade rumors, hours after Yasmani Grandal hit a walk-off home run to send the South Siders into a first-place tie atop the AL Central standings.
Yes, the White Sox are finally contenders. And what contenders do at the trade deadline is trade for guys. They bolster their chances at winning the whole damn thing with deadline acquisitions. And so it should come as no surprise that the contending White Sox are being linked to a number of obvious trade candidates.
Whether any trade of that scale will happen, though, remains to be seen.
Much like everything else involving the 2020 season, this is no ordinary trade deadline, with teams just a month removed from Opening Day and with no minor league season, making talent evaluation a tricky task. That’s before you get to the financials, which have been completely upended by a fan-less season. That won’t just have an immediate impact but one on the upcoming offseason, too.
And then there’s the White Sox standard operating procedure, which for the last few rebuilding years has been a sharp focus on the long-term future of the franchise, on making sure that any contention window that opens stays open for the better part of the next decade. The carefully crafted plans that have put a premium on club control — best exemplified by the long-term contract extensions for Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert — will not be significantly altered for a one- or two-month rental.
Rick Hahn said as much earlier this month.
“We’re continuing to be focused on the long term. We’re continuing to be focused on putting ourselves in the best position, not just this year, but for the long term,” he said. “By that I mean essentially, in all probability, depending on pricing, rentals is probably not where we would invest if we wind up doing anything. It’s going to be more something that would help us both in ‘20 as well as ‘21 and beyond.
“Never say never. In the end, it’s all going to come down to pricing. If there is a way to get better and we were comfortable with that exchange that only makes us better in ‘20, then we’ll obviously consider it. But in terms of two-weeks-out (from the deadline) philosophy, we remain focused on the long term.”
So now that we’ve got all that raining on the trade-rumor parade out of the way, none of this is to say that a trade for a starting pitcher is not needed as the White Sox look to make some noise come October.
As good as the rotation has been — the 3.65 starters’ ERA ranked third in the American League entering Saturday’s action — the only real consistent excellence has been turned in by the top two guys, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. That’s left the biggest question surrounding the team from before the season started unanswered: What can the White Sox get out of Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón?
Cease has been pretty good at keeping runs off the board, as his 3.13 ERA entering his Saturday-afternoon start indicated. He’s also made a habit of giving up homers, walking batters and finding his way into jams before dancing out of danger. The latter is a good skill to have. It’s also a kind of luck that could run out against the elite lineups of playoff teams.
Meanwhile, López and Rodón have spent the bulk of the campaign on the injured list. Rodón’s still there, and López just returned, logging only 7.1 innings and 120 pitches in his first two starts back. That’s not a lot to go on, and it’s even less to bank on for a playoff run.
It’s quite possible all three of those guys — as well as Dane Dunning, who figures to start Sunday after making his major league debut a week and a half ago — could round into shape and count as dependable weapons come October. But there are other guys out there who already are.
Lynn is chief among them, and he’s likely the top pitching prize on this deadline’s market. Simply put, he’s currently one of the best pitchers in the American League, with a 1.59 ERA in his seven starts for the Texas Rangers. This follows up on a strong 2019 campaign that saw him finish fifth — one place ahead of Giolito — in the AL Cy Young vote.
At 33, he doesn’t scream “long-term asset,” but he is under contract through the 2021 season, making him more than simply a rental for one playoff run. His addition to Giolito and Keuchel would give the White Sox a heck of a 1-2-3 punch in the rotation and make them fearsome to any opposing lineup.
But as Hahn mentioned, cost is everything.
The White Sox are not going to deal an “anything of the future” for a little more than a year of a pitcher of even Lynn’s caliber. So if the Rangers are asking for the likes of Nick Madrigal, Michael Kopech or Andrew Vaughn, a deal seems rather unlikely. But how far down the list of the White Sox top prospects could you find someone to center a return package around?
Anyone who’s ever played fantasy baseball knows how easy it is to either overvalue your own guys or think a big enough collection of mid-tier players could pry any top player away. But statistically, Lynn has been one of the AL’s finest arms the last two seasons. Do the Rangers part with him for a group of prospects led by Dunning? What if the White Sox say even Dunning is too big of an ask? These are the mysteries of trade talks none of us are privy to, obviously.
The other two names mentioned are not the caliber of Lynn, and they wouldn't command the kind of return package Lynn might, perhaps making a deal more realistic, if simultaneously less interesting and less impactful.
Like Lynn, Bundy is under team control for 2021, too, though his track record is nowhere near Lynn’s. The former top prospect is still just 27 years old, but is six games’ worth of a 2.58 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels enough to rewrite the story of the 4.68 career ERA he posted in 127 games as a Baltimore Oriole? Enough to convince the White Sox to part with prospects that could be of greater benefit as they look to contend for championships on an annual basis years into the future?
Ray, meanwhile, is far less alluring thanks to a sky-high 7.84 ERA, a major league leading 31 walks in 31 innings and six wild pitches that also rank as the most in the bigs. He’s now three years removed from an All-Star season and top-10 Cy Young finish with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the biggest point of note: He’d be a rental. And that’s not what these White Sox are looking for.
Hahn has already shown he’s looking to make the kinds of additions contending teams make, acquiring Jarrod Dyson from the Pittsburgh Pirates to serve as little more than a pinch-runner and ninth-inning defensive replacement. Championship teams have those guys, those role players who come up with a huge moment at the right time and make the difference between a championship and runner-up status. Dyson knows. He was a member of the Kansas City Royals teams that won back-to-back pennants and a World Series title a half decade ago.
But fans are used to contending teams making much bigger splashes, too, and surely Hahn is on the hunt for one of those, too — if he can find one in his price range. That means financials, yes, because of how significantly shaken up the economics of baseball have become in the last few months. But it’s also long-term assets. In a game where the near-term economic future appears anything but steady, having a bunch of young, cost-effective players with which to stock contending rosters for years to come isn’t the worst thing.
All that said, baseball is so frequently an arms race, with the top teams often reaping the rewards for aggressive moves made at the trade deadline.
The White Sox are trying to accomplish two goals at once, winning now and winning later, and so far they’ve done a good job at seeming ready for anyone come October and ready for years and years of contention. And it’s with all of that in mind that Hahn needs to make his decisions at this deadline.
He’s wanted these good problems to have for so long. Now he’s got them. Just another thing that comes with winning.