Written by Brett D. Schweinberg
White Sox fans should be excited about the prospects of the 2020 White Sox. But South Siders who are only excited about the next year or two lack vision. They should be really excited about 2022 through 2024. And perhaps the five years following that. This has been a fantastic offseason for the White Sox, though likely not for the reason most White Sox fans think.
To clarify things, I am not here to carry water for Rick Hahn or Kenny Williams. After all, just a few years ago, the White Sox had Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and Jose Abreu locked into team friendly deals with years of cheap control. The front office should have been able to surround that core with veterans to make a playoff caliber team, and the White Sox management ultimately failed. If Rick Hahn and Co. couldn’t convert on that core of young talent, why would things be any different with Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, and Eloy Jimenez?
In the 2014-2015 offseason, with a core cheap, established major league talent, the White Sox whiffed on premier starters Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. Instead, they traded for Jeff Samardzija in exchange for Marcus Semien and others. The now Oakland shortstop finished third in AL MVP voting last year with an 8.1 WAR season. Jeff Samardzija, well, never mind. On the offensive side, they signed Melky Cabrera, only the fourth best bat available that year, and supplemented him with Adam (and Drake) LaRoche. Woof. The White Sox also made a solid move in the bullpen by adding David Robertson at closer.
The paradox of the 2019 offseason for the White Sox is that it looks a lot like the 2014 one. Yasmani Grandal roughly equates to Melky Cabrera. Dallas Keuchel is akin to Jeff Samardzjia. Edwin Encarnacion and Adam LaRoche are both veteran DH’s who came cheap, and the White Sox are likely to add a bullpen arm but not on par with David Robertson. Just as in 2014-15, the White Sox whiffed on the top three pitchers on the market in Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Wheeler, and settled for a very good position player rather than making a splash with Anthony Rendon. To a skeptical fan, these look exactly like the kind of moves designed to keep a team in second place, the very moves that squandered the last crop of talented young players under team control.
How, then, was this a fantastic offseason for the White Sox? It’s because there actually appears to be a very decent long range plan in place that makes good sense, and it’s also because this talented core of players is so young that this year’s signings don’t strangle the future of this team before it’s left the nest.
Though much improved, the 2020 White Sox are still nowhere near a championship caliber team. They do stack up well in a division helmed by a Minnesota team who has lost key players and is bound to regress towards the mean and a Cleveland squad actively shedding their best players. However, this is not a team that can compete with the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers of the world. At least, not yet.
Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert, though they appear to be studs in the making, will start their rookie campaign in April. Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez had 2019 seasons that are charitably described as challenging. Michael Kopech is coming off Tommy John surgery, and even after all of the improvements this offseason, right field is still a platoon of replacement level players.
The truth of this White Sox team is that they do not yet know where their long-term strengths and weaknesses lie. Lucas Giolito could regress after his stellar 2019 campaign. Michael Kopech may not come back from surgery the same flamethrower of a pitcher as before. Dylan Cease struggled in 2019 and will need to show decent improvements. Luis Robert may be susceptible to big league sliders in his rookie season. Madrigal could turn out to be a replacement level infielder. All of those things happening seem about as probable as all of those players developing into their All-Star potential. In the meantime, it could turn out that Luis Alexander Basabe or Blake Rutherford become a very solid right fielder for the team.
Fans, rightly tempted, want the Sox to make a splash on a huge name now to supplement this core, but that move doesn’t make sense whether that’s Anthony Rendon or Stephen Strasburg or trading for Nolan Arenado, as this team doesn’t yet know where there most obvious needs will be. Even without a splashy move this offseason, this team should be very good, and by avoiding an albatross contract this offseason, this team could be very good for a very long time.
In terms of a realistic plan sustainable in the long term, here’s how the White Sox next few years would optimally play out: In 2020, the Sox contend for a playoff spot, but get bounced in the wild card or divisional round. In 2021, everybody has played meaningful games that count and Andrew Vaughn comes on board, and the team makes a deeper push, hopefully to the ALCS. From 2022 to 2024, the White Sox are in their window to win a World Series. It may not come to be, but with the core they have in place and smart additions they have the financial flexibility to make, this is when they figure to have a genuine shot at giving fans the Grant Park Rally they didn’t get in 2005.
This year’s free agent signings fit this long term plan to a tee. As has been said a hundred times by now, Keuchel gives the White Sox the left-handed, veteran presence they direly need. He can help develop the young pitching staff because he’s come through a rebuild and went on to win a Cy Young and a World Series ring in Houston. And, given the terms of the contract, he won’t prevent the team from making further additions in the future, especially considering that David Price is slated to make $40 million more than Keuchel over those same three years and is two years older. Keuchel figures to be at the back end of his prime, still a solid No. 2 or 3 pitcher this year and diminishing towards a No. 4 guy by the end of the contract, though he projects as an innings eater and solid value throughout.
This gives our nebulous pitching staff time it direly needs to develop. With Giolito an established front-end starter, the White Sox need some combination of Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning to develop into two or three solid to excellent starters. Kopech and perhaps Cease appear to have the stuff to join 2019 All Star Lucas Giolito at the front end of the rotation, though it’s going to take a few years to see what Dunning has in him, and Lopez would need to bounce back from a disappointing 2019. Keuchel is key in giving the White Sox time to sort this out, and in the meantime, Carlos Rodon and Gio Gonzalez give the White Sox swing men and depth options. It’s fair to say that the White Sox are stacked at starting pitching over the next few years. Even if a couple of the pitching prospects turn out to be busts, this group should develop into a staff somewhere between really good and great.
With Grandal and Encarnacion in the fold, the White Sox have done effectively the same thing on offense. They are solid veteran presences that can carry the team while the rest of the core solidifies. Encarnacion’s age also means he won’t stand in the way of Andrew Vaughan, who is actually ranked ahead of Nick Madrigal as the organization’s No. 3 prospect, even if he is at least half a season away from his major league call up.
You may notice that Keuchel, whose signing I’m raving about, is projected to be a No. 4 guy in the first year of the championship window, and could be gone for two thirds of it. That’s exactly the point. Keuchel’s role in this long range plan is not to be the guy that wins us rings. That’s up to our homegrown talent and future free agents. Keuchel’s role is to make our young staff better for the rest of their careers with his veteran presence at a critical stage in their development. Keuchel is the guy that pushes us into playoff contention now, so that by 2022, the pitching staff and guys like Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, and Eloy Jimenez are grizzled playoff veterans just as they hit their absolute prime. The short length of this contract allows the White Sox to significantly upgrade from Keuchel during that prime championship window as well. Had they signed Bumgarner to five years over Keuchel’s three, they’d be turning to a guy with too many years and too many miles on his arm during their prime years of contention.
Better yet, even if Keuchel’s 2023 option vests, he won’t interfere with resigning any of the core members of the White Sox future. Keuchel, along with fellow offseason major signing Yasmani Grandal, will be coming off the books by the end of the 2023 season, freeing up some $36 million in payroll. That same year, Giolito, Moncada, and Lopez are due for new deals. The following year, the White Sox will have to contend with Kopech and Anderson’s free agency. Guys like Jimenez, Cease, Madrigal, and Robert, come shortly thereafter. If things go just fairly well and considering inflation, a half dozen of those players will require contracts of $20 million or more.
Imagine having signed Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon to seven-year deals. In four years, the organization is eating the back end of those contracts rather than resigning Giolito or Moncada in their prime. Worse yet, their contributions are likely to have significantly declined by 2022-24 championship window. Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish are the reason the Cubs may have to trade Kris Bryant, just as David Price is the reason the Red Sox may have to deal away Mookie Betts’ last year or literally give away Andrew Benintendi. Signing Dallas Keuchel instead of splurging on Rendon when we’ve already got a stud third basemen is why the White Sox shouldn’t wind up in that same position.
Moreover, by sticking with short term deals, the White Sox have offered themselves more flexibility in the next few years so they can more accurately supplement for their needs. Just next season, the White Sox will have the option to free up $17 million from Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez, with James McCann, Alex Colome, and Kelvin Herrera bringing another $24 million off the books. At $41 million, that’s enough money to make a run at a player like Mookie Betts, the big splash Sox fans have been waiting for. To put that another way, this is roughly what the White Sox spent on Keuchel, Grandal, and Gonzalez combined, meaning they could add roughly that amount of talent again next year.
Rick Hahn had a needle to thread this offseason. Had the team been too cautious and made too few moves, the front office risked stunting the development of its young players, especially in terms of the postseason. Now had the organization made big splashes, it risked over committing resources to players that would be past their prime by the time this team is genuinely ready to compete.
Unlike the 2014 offseason, Rick Hahn nailed it by. Ironically, this year was a success as much for the moves he abstained from making as it was for the moves he did make. Does this make up for the 2014 offseason? No. Not by a longshot. Even making up for that horrendous offseason wouldn’t quite make up for trading away Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana.
In truth, the White Sox front office has largely failed their fan base since winning the 2005 World Series. The team the couldn’t create sustained success off that roster, hasn’t made the playoffs in 11 years, and hasn’t played important games in September since 2012. That being said, White Sox fans have every right to be excited for 2020, but they should be successively more excited for each of the four seasons beyond that. Despite having existed since 1901, the White Sox have never made it to the postseason in consecutive years. They have a shot of making it for the next five years in a row. Finally, the White Sox front office has a chance of making it up to their fans. In fact, they have a chance to do a lot more than that.
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