The White Sox, with all their financial flexibility, have been tied to some of the biggest names on this winter’s free-agent market. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Nathan Eovaldi are all apparently drawing interest from the South Siders.
Landing a big fish via free agency might be the opportunity Rick Hahn’s front office has been looking for, adding a so-called “finishing piece” now, even though the ongoing rebuilding effort has yet to yield a full roster of homegrown talent.
But because there is such a vast reserve of minor league talent in the farm system, some folks getting a little impatient might prefer Hahn looked for his big fish via trade. And it’s not a crazy suggestion, really, with franchise players being acquired in that fashion across the league. Just last winter, the Milwaukee Brewers sent their top-rated prospect to the Miami Marlins to bring in Christian Yelich. And in 2018, Yelich won the NL MVP and helped the Brew Crew get within a win of the World Series.
But this winter’s first big move showed just how steep the price will be for an All-Star type major leaguer.
The Seattle Mariners — who appear to be standing somewhere along the sell-off spectrum — sent starting pitcher James Paxton to the New York Yankees on Monday, a big-time upgrade for the 100-win Bronx Bombers, who figure to be spending the winter jockeying with the division-rival Boston Red Sox for the title of 2019 preseason World Series favorite. As was mentioned here when reports of the Mariners’ supposed willingness to deal star players first popped up, Paxton is very good. Over the past two seasons, he posted a 3.40 ERA with 364 strikeouts in 52 starts.
Hahn said no one should be surprised to hear the White Sox connected to the game’s biggest names this winter. We’ve already seen it with big-name free agents, but does that apply to the trade market, too? Paxton’s two years of team control didn’t make him the most logical fit for the long-term focused South Siders, but the M’s have guys like Mitch Haniger and Edwin Diaz, under team control for four years apiece, who would fit that long-term plan. Of course, the Mariners figure to have a long-term plan, too, and might not be anywhere near as willing to part with that pair of 2018 All Stars.
The point is, however, the return package that went back to Seattle in exchange for Paxton. The Yankees gave up a trio of prospects, headlined by Justus Sheffield, the No. 31 prospect in baseball who ranked as the Yankees’ best and now ranks as the Mariners’ best. Sheffield got a brief taste of the majors in 2018, but it was what he did in the minors last season that earned him that high ranking: a 2.48 ERA with 123 strikeouts in 116 innings over 25 appearances, 20 of which were starts.
That’s not all too dissimilar from the guy ranked six spots ahead of Sheffield on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 100 prospects in the game: Dylan Cease. Cease is the White Sox No. 3 prospect, their No. 2 pitching prospect behind only Michael Kopech, who was promoted to the major leagues in late August before needing Tommy John surgery just four starts into his big league career. Cease was one of two White Sox representatives at the Futures Game last season and ended up as MLB Pipeline’s minor league pitcher of the year for his 2.40 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 124 innings over 23 starts.
Sheffield and Cease are both 22 years old, both ranked really high on the prospect lists and both put up sensational numbers as minor leaguers in 2018. Sheffield was the centerpiece of a major trade this offseason, and while it would seem outrageous to suggest that Cease would be, too, just a year and a half after the White Sox acquired him in the Jose Quintana deal, he would be a logical starting point in a discussion about an All-Star caliber arm. Heck, it was Cease and current White Sox top prospect Eloy Jimenez who the White Sox got for Quintana, a controllable All-Star hurler, in the first place.
Who knows how many of those are left on trade market now that Paxton’s been dealt. Zack Greinke’s name has been mentioned as a potential trade candidate, though he carries with him other circumstances, such as his monster contract that pays him $104.5 million over the next three seasons. The Cleveland Indians are reportedly willing to listen to trade offers for just about anyone, including Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, two of the game’s best starting pitchers in 2018. But when it specifically comes to the White Sox, it’d be a good guess that the Tribe would be less willing to part with their stars if it meant them going to a division rival.
It doesn’t seem like the White Sox are in the position to start trading prospects yet, and perhaps that’s a factor in their apparent aggressiveness when it comes to free agents. They have financial flexibility that could allow them to hand out a huge contract, bring in a big fish and still hang on to all their prospects.
As the rebuild advances, the day could (and almost certainly will) come when Hahn is ready to deal from a position of prospect strength to improve an area of weakness on the major league roster. That day likely won’t be in the wake of a 100-loss campaign. But for those out there who would propose such a move during admittedly fun sessions as an armchair general manager, know that the price will be high — and it could start with Cease.