The Team That Will Run the Winter

The offseason is upon us. Free agency officially begins tomorrow, as the five day exclusive window ends, and teams and agents are free to begin officially negotiating with anyone they choose. But as we’ve seen in past years, the start of the free agent period doesn’t really set off a signing frenzy; the baseball free agent market moves pretty slowly for most players.

And that’s because teams generally want to kick a bunch of tires before committing to one path, and that tire-kicking includes exploring the trade market, figuring out who is buying and who is selling. The last few years, the league has seen a drastic shortage of sellers, as teams within spitting distance of .500 decided to fancy themselves as contenders thanks to the addition of the second Wild Card and the financial incentives related to making a deep postseason run. The reality of 22 or 23 teams trying to add talent while only six or seven teams were looking to unload veterans made for a challenging trade environment, and resulted in a bunch of teams deciding that free agency was the way to go last year.

This year, though, the free agent market stinks. There just isn’t the kind of impact talent out there that teams are used to being able to throw money at, so the trade market is likely to be even more active than usual. And yet, we might be in a similar position in regards to the ratio of buyers and sellers.

In the AL, the Twins and A’s look like the only AL teams who would likely admit that they’re in the midst of a rebuilding effort. The NL has a few more teams openly looking long-term, but the Braves aren’t going to be selling big leaguers right as they move into their new ballpark, and the Padres and Phillies don’t have a lot left to sell at this point. Once again, it looks like there are going to be a lot more teams looking to add than subtract this winter.

That puts teams on the bubble in an interesting position. While no one wants to tear down a potential contender, this is a great market to be shopping premium talent, given the lack of quality free agents and the shortage of sellers with desirable players to move. Without alternatives to compete against, sellers with elite players to move could ask for absurd returns, and might actually get them from desperate buyers who are focused solely on the short-term upgrade. And that set of circumstances puts the White Sox in a particularly great position to make sure the Hot Stove Season runs through the south side of Chicago.

The White Sox were one of the bubble teams who went the other way last year, acquiring Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie to try and upgrade their infield in an attempt to win while Chris Sale and Jose Abreu were still in their primes. It didn’t work, as the team limped to a 78-84 record, and now have even more evidence that they just don’t quite have enough talent to make a run with this team as assembled. Trying one more time to bolster the secondary players on the team, in a weak free agent market, seems like it’s more likely to fail than succeed. This time, Rick Hahn should probably take the opportunity to be the auctioneer with some one-of-a-kind pieces to sell.

Obviously, Chris Sale is the first name everyone thinks of when they think about the White Sox blowing it up. But the reality is that the team could do much more than just make a blockbuster deal for their #1 starter.

Jose Quintana is also better than any other pitcher on either the free agent or trade market, and is under club control through 2020 at bargain prices. Abreu has lost some value by going the wrong way offensively the last few years, but he finished the second half on a big upswing, and remains vastly underpriced relative to what it will cost to sign an inferior player like Mark Trumbo. Todd Frazier remains a solid player, and though he won’t bring back a premium return with just one year left before he hits free agency, he might command nearly as much in return in this weak market for bats as he cost the White Sox last year.

And then there’s the bullpen. The price of relievers went through the roof last winter, and after what we just saw in the postseason, the price of bullpen arms is probably going up again. This is one area where there are free agent options, but there are going to be teams who want to upgrade their relief corps without committing five or six years to a guy like Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen. And the White Sox have two guys who would work as quality alternatives to the big ticket closers.

David Robertson is the name-value guy, and has been one of the best closers in baseball for a while now. His command went the wrong way last year, but the stuff is still there, and with just 2/$25M left on his deal, he now costs about as much as a decent setup man. But the real chip in the White Sox bullpen isn’t Robertson; it’s Nate Jones.

The fireballing setup guy was quietly one of the best relievers in the game last year, harnessing his velocity and turning himself into a dominant right-hander. And because the White Sox signed him to a cheap long-term deal a year ago, when he was just fresh off returning from Tommy John surgery, he’s one of the most cost effective relievers in baseball for the next few years. Jones is set to make $1.9 million next year, $4 million in 2018, then had options for $4.6 and $5.2 million in 2019 and 2020; assuming those are picked up, any team acquiring Jones would owe him a total of $15.7 million over the next four years. That’s less than what one year of a guy like Jansen or Chapman will cost.

Jones could easily be this year’s Ken Giles, the target of a team that wants a flame-throwing relief ace for multiple years but doesn’t want to get into a free agent bidding war. And there are a number of teams in baseball that will prefer to convert their minor leaguers into guys like Jones rather than throwing money at trying to buy wins in this free agent class.

In Sale, Quintana, Abreu, Jones, and Robertson, the White Sox have five valuable trade chips, and that’s assuming they would prefer to keep Adam Eaton, who has turned himself into one of the best outfielders in baseball too. If they put Eaton on the blocks too, they’d have six of the most coveted players on the market, and would have something for almost literally every buyer out there.

Now, maybe the White Sox don’t want to blow things up to that degree, but the circumstances are in their favor if they want to run the winter. There aren’t many other teams capable of opening up shop in this way, and there won’t be another winter with this kind of dearth of quality free agents for a while. If Rick Hahn wants to, he can make himself a kingmaker this winter, and potentially set the White Sox up in a great position for the next decade.

The next few years will be rough if they do gut the roster like this, but with the ability to command premium returns this winter, the payoff could well be worth it. I know they’d rather win with Sale as a member of the franchise, but given what this winter’s landscape looks like, the White Sox should probably choose to be the team that takes advantage of a serious seller’s market.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

So basically the most talented rebuild ever?