Chris Sale, their former ace, went on to win a World Series ring in Boston. Adam Eaton, their one-time leadoff hitter and center fielder, suffered a season-ending injury within a month of joining the Washington Nationals. The seven prospects the White Sox received in the two trades, a handful of them considered among the most coveted in the sport, have ranged from promising to disappointing to injured.
The White Sox themselves, meantime, bottomed out at 62-100 in 2018, their worst mark in nearly half a century.
And here, a mere 24 months after their profound change of direction, the White Sox would have the baseball world believe they are ready for another dramatic pivot — this time, a sudden and potentially extreme buildup that has them positioned to sign one of the prized free agents on this winter’s marketplace, shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado or outfielder Bryce Harper.
In a sport gripped by moderation and rationality — in which even the perennial biggest spenders are tiptoeing around the Machado and Harper sweepstakes, if not sitting them out completely — the White Sox make little effort to hide their willingness to go dollar-for-dollar with any team this winter to win the services of one of the 26-year-old superstars, both of whom are thought to be using Giancarlo Stanton’s record-setting $325 million contract as a benchmark.
“We're in a position, potentially, to be able to possibly acquire someone of a status, of a reputation, of a skill-set that can impact your club in a significant way,” White Sox Manager Rick Renteria said last week. “It makes your team better, the caliber of players that everybody is talking about and hopefully trying to acquire.”
The White Sox are among the teams known to have met with Harper and his representatives in Las Vegas — reportedly bringing along Hall of Famer Jim Thome, a special assistant to General Manager Rick Hahn, to help sell Harper on the franchise — and earlier this week, they hosted Machado and his family in Chicago. Neither player appears close to being ready to make a decision, and Machado only Wednesday met with the New York Yankees in Manhattan, and Thursday with the Phillies in Philadelphia.
“It’s good to have a seat at the table for some long, impactful moves,” Hahn told reporters last week, after the Harper meeting but before the Machado one. “We made no secret there are a couple of intriguing long-term fits out there.”
For now, at least from an optics standpoint, the attention of the White Sox appears to be focused on Machado. On Dec. 15, just days before they were to meet with Machado, they acquired first baseman/designated hitter Yonder Alonso in a trade with Cleveland, a relatively minor move — except for the fact Alonso happens to be Machado’s brother-in-law. (Machado’s wife, Yainee, is Alsonso’s sister.)
While the White Sox portrayed the move as being primarily about needs and value, none of the parties hid from the larger, potential consequences.
“Fundamentally, this is a baseball deal,” Hahn said in announcing the trade. “The potential ancillary benefits to it, in terms of [Alonso’s] relationships with others, can’t really be a part of pulling the trigger in making the decision.”
“I think it will be very, very nice to be neighbors on the south side [of Chicago],” Alonso told reporters after the trade, when asked about Machado. “ … He’s going to do his own thing [and] obviously do what’s best for his family, but we have a very tight family, and we’d definitely like to reach the playoffs [together] and maybe in the future play alongside each other.”
As for Harper, while the White Sox — coming off 100 losses, and mired semi-permanently as the No. 2 team in their own city — wouldn’t necessarily fit the profile of the sort of team he is thought to be looking for, money almost always speaks loudest in free agency, and the White Sox have at least signaled a willingness and wherewithal to go high.
So what was it, exactly, that caused the White Sox — in what appears to be only the middle stages of its rebuilding effort — to pivot all of a sudden and become, by all accounts, one of the clear drivers of this high-end free agent market?
Partly, it is a matter of opportunity. Twenty-six-year-old superstars, the type a team can construct a roster around for years, don’t often come available via free agency. The White Sox, though, are also in perfect financial position for a big strike, with a new local television deal coming after 2019 and minimal payroll obligations in future seasons. In the meantime, their top division rivals, the Cleveland Indians, have been shedding payroll, and their crosstown rivals, the Cubs, are boxed in by their future commitments and are not believed to be actively involved in the Harper or Machado markets.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a rebuilding team such as the White Sox to use the free agent market as a vehicle for turning the corner on that process — though typically, such splashy moves occur when the team is thought to be closer to contention.
In December 2010, following a 69-93 season, the Washington Nationals signed outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract that was widely viewed throughout the industry as an overpay. By 2012, however, the Nationals had claimed the first of four division titles in a six-year span, and many in the organization point to the Werth signing as legitimizing their franchise as a destination for top talent. A similar dynamic occurred for the Cubs with the December 2014 signing of lefty Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal.
“It changes the dynamic of your club,” Renteria said. “You're not going to win with one guy, but it's a big piece.”
For all the talk from White Sox management, it remains an open question whether ownership, in the end, will be willing to spend what it might take to steal Machado or Harper away from other suitors — most notably the Yankees and Phillies — with greater resources and better hopes of winning in 2019. (In this regard, the White Sox are the opposite of the Phillies, whose owner famously bragged of a willingness to be “stupid” with his spending this winter, but whose analytics-inclined front office is viewed as being more logical and methodical.)
Under longtime owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago’s largest free agent deal to date was the six-year, $68 million contract for Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu in 2013 — still a fraction of what Harper or Machado could cost them. The only time Reinsdorf can be said to have made an industry-shaking signing was when he gave Albert Belle a five-year, $55 million deal in 1996.
But Reinsdorf is also 82 years old, and his team hasn’t posted a winning season since 2012, earned a playoff appearance since 2008 or won a World Series title since 2005. Attendance at Guaranteed Rate Field fell to a 20-year low in 2018, to 1.6 million fans, 12th in the American League. They were in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Now, Reinsdorf’s TV windfall is on the horizon. Supremacy in both the American League Central and the Windy City are, at least hypothetically, within reach. And the baseball fates have seen fit to drop a couple of franchise-altering 26-year-olds onto the free agent market at this precise moment. How can the White Sox walk away from that?