By the time the Jeff Samardzija trade became official Tuesday at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego, Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was fielding secondary questions about the chances of extending Samardzija’s contract beyond 2015. Most — if not all — of the questions reporters asked Hahn pertained (fairly) in some way to Samardzija, who gives the White Sox a formidable top of the rotation with left-handers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. It’s possible, however, that another player the White Sox received in the deal with the Oakland Athletics will get a chance to help his new team long after the coming season.
Billed in 2008 as a generational talent who had the signing bonus to prove it, 6-foot-7 right-hander Michael Ynoa is getting a fresh start with the White Sox after struggling with serious injuries, reaching bloated expectations and getting frustrating results since turning pro. In a secondary scrum with reporters that came after the TV cameras shut off, Hahn was excited to talk about Ynoa after trying to explain — for a third or fourth time or 20th time — that the matter of Samardzija’s contract wouldn’t be resolved that day.
“Yeah, nobody asked about him — I was surprised,” Hahn said. “Ynoa was a true target of ours. This is a kid with a big arm, with a multi-pitch mix. He certainly has a plus fastball and a plus slider and a feel for two other pitches, as well.”
Listen carefully. That’s the sound of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper cracking his knuckles.
Given the cost of scouting him and the money the A’s paid him, Ynoa, who’s now 23, would have been untouchable a few years ago, so the trade represents at least a partial surrender on the part of A’s general manager Billy Beane. When the Athletics signed Ynoa out of the Dominican Republic, they paid him a bonus that qualified not only as a team record, but also as a major league record for any international amateur player who hadn’t defected from Cuba. Heads turned because it was the A’s — notoriously one of the poorer franchises in Major League Baseball — breaking the news, and further because Ynoa was just 16 years old. Imagine giving your 16-year-old a Mercedes, or possibly a fleet of them, once he (or she) turned 16. Now imagine you’re the A’s, who have to cross their fingers every time someone flushes a toilet at their ballpark. They’re not made of money.
No matter, because Ynoa was billed as a generational talent, said to be the best since Felix Hernandez. Tall kid. Cool last name that sounds like a healthy yogurt topping. The A’s were effusive with praise, too. The expectations were huge, but they didn’t take long to deflate. The first sign was elbow tendinitis that shut Ynoa down in 2009, before his first season even began. Then there was the Tommy John surgery in 2010. He had other injuries, too, including shoulder soreness and wisdom teeth issues. (We’re talking about a kid, of course.)
“He was a 16-year-old kid who got the largest bonus in history at that time, so obviously a great deal of expectations come with that,” Hahn said. “Then he had to battle through some health issues. It was a tough transition for him.”
Four seasons of pitching into a career that began six-and-a-half years ago, Ynoa has accumulated just 161 innings, posting a 4.81 ERA and 168 strikeouts, with 85 walks and 147 hits allowed. In 2014, the A’s converted him into a reliever, which is where Hahn said Ynoa’s future is with the White Sox. Ynoa posted a 5.52 ERA in 45 2/3 innings in 2014 with Stockton of the California League. More encouragingly, he struck out 64 batters, which gave him the best rate of his career.
“His is a big arm and a guy who, if he continues to progress in that new role as he did in ’14, that we can see helping the back end of the bullpen in the not-too-distant future,” Hahn said.
The White Sox do have some time for Ynoa to continue to develop. He’s on Chicago’s 40-man roster, so Ynoa won’t be subject to six-year minor-league free agency after the 2015 season unless the White Sox outright him. (And if they do, then that means Ynoa had some kind of disaster again.) Plus, Hahn said, Ynoa has two options remaining, which give him until Opening Day 2017 to make it.
He’d only be 25.
Dave Brown recently joined Fangraphs and CBS' Eye on Baseball after seven years writing for Big League Stew at Yahoo Sports. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and young daughter — who appears to be a left-hander. Follow him on Twitter @AnswerDave.