At the start of the White Sox rebuild, many optimistically looked at the 2019 season as the start of the next run of contention, citing the fact that the Sox were able to jump-start the process by trading three premium assets for near MLB-ready talent. It wasn’t a completely unreasonable hope, but things certainly have not shaken out that way. 2020 quickly became the more realistic target, and it’s where most people have set their sights.
The 2019-2020 offseason has been spoken about by fans and the front office alike as the time when the White Sox would begin to add talent to begin to make that dream look like a reality. Thus far this offseason, the Sox have made relatively inconsequential transactions while witnessing a flurry of activity around baseball. Many players that appeared to be fits with the White Sox have signed elsewhere. A big reason that the White Sox have likely sat still is their desire to put all of their effort and resources toward a top-level star in Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.
While it’s admirable for the White Sox to be in the running for both, they will likely need to bring in more help than just one of them, and should they land neither, they’ll need to find another way to build a competitive team. Below is the current depth chart for the 2020 roster, assuming prospects are promoted on schedule without injuries or performance-related setbacks. For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring the bullpen, because I think there’s enough options on hand for it to be an asset by 2020.
2020 Roster, Internal Options
- C: Welington Castillo / Seby Zavala / Zack Collins
- 1B: Yonder Alonso / Collins
- 2B: Yoan Moncada / Nick Madrigal
- SS: Tim Anderson
- 3B: Yolmer Sanchez / Moncada
- LF: Eloy Jimenez
- CF: Adam Engel / Luis Basabe
- RF: Leury Garcia
- DH: Daniel Palka
- SP1: Michael Kopech
- SP2: Dylan Cease
- SP3: Reynaldo Lopez
- SP4: Carlos Rodon
- SP5: Lucas Giolito / Dane Dunning
We’ll talk about that rotation in a bit, but that lineup doesn’t seem like it’s on solid ground. There aren’t many players in that group that one would consider favorites to be average-or-better regulars in 2020 (which I’m defining as a median projection of 2.0 WAR or better). Let’s write this again, but omit everyone that doesn’t look like they fit that description.
2020 Lineup, Projected Average-or-Better Options
- C: ???
- 1B: ???
- 2B: Yoan Moncada
- SS: Tim Anderson
- 3B: ???
- LF: Eloy Jimenez
- CF: ???
- RF: ???
- DH: ???
Madrigal is probably the most debatable omission from the above list, but in my estimation, I think the chances are less than 50% that Madrigal produces 2.0 WAR for the major league team in 2020. It’s a possibility, but I think it’s more likely that he’ll first be a contributor in the second half of that season. Others such as Collins and Basabe give the White Sox possible upside, but nothing worth penciling in at this point. Still, I wouldn’t argue if one wanted to displace one of the “???” with one of these prospects to account for the possibility of positive internal development. Going any further is likely overly optimistic.
The rotation is a little different for this exercise because five guys play the same position. I’d argue Kopech, Cease, and Lopez could be expected to be average-or-better starting pitchers in 2020. However, I would also argue that in the median scenario, they comprise a below-average “top-three”. There’s enough upside in that trio that it could wind up being stellar, but there’s not enough stability to hang our hats on. It’s a high-ceiling, low-floor situation, and probably one that would benefit greatly from a proven, above-average external addition.
Steamer projects 17 pitchers for at least 3.5 WAR in 2019. Kopech and Cease in particular stand some chance at moving into that “ace” category and being 3.5-or-better WAR pitchers in 2020. However, the median projection for each is likely well south of that benchmark. For some comparison, Noah Syndergaard is projected for 3.6 WAR (16th) next year, meaning that about half the time he’ll be better than that and half the time he’ll be worse. If that were the median expectation for one of Kopech or Cease, they’d unquestionably be the best pitching prospect in baseball and probably in the top-five overall. Kopech’s injury, Cease’s past propensity for injury, the fact that Cease has a little more time before he’s ready for the big leagues, and the fact that prospects often don’t wind up as great as we imagine them to be, all introduce enough risk that we should not treat their immediate ascent to the top of the rotation as a given, or even the most likely outcome. Either pitcher could be Thor in two years, but it’s going too far to suggest either (individually) will probably be Thor in two years.
A good amount of work is therefore needed to make the 2020 White Sox into an average team, let alone one that looks like a postseason favorite. For that reason, there’s a lot of risk with a “Machado/Harper or Bust” offseason strategy. If you ink one, you’re on a palatable track. If not, you’re leaving yourself a single offseason (and July trade deadline) to fix all of the issues with the depth chart above. Should the Sox sit this winter out, they’ll find that it’s harder to optimally allocate financial flexibility over one winter (2019-2020) than over two. That’s in part due to the nature of competing with other teams for a limited pool of free agents and partly because the 2019 roster (as currently constructed) looks like a 71-ish win team that won’t make the south side of Chicago look much sexier to free agents than the 2018 roster did.
There were and still are players on the market that could help the White Sox. A couple of this year’s free agents below the Big Two look like great bets to be above-average players in 2020 (Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal). Many others (Wilson Ramos, Michael Brantley, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ, Andrew McCutchen, etc.) stand some chance to be strong assets if they maintain their current level, but even if not, there’s a high chance they will be at least average contributors that don’t need to be balanced out by a better player somewhere else on the roster. It’s true that the White Sox need to bring in a star, but they need guys like these, too. They’ve missed the boat on many of them already.
In that light, it’s truly puzzling where the White Sox stand early in the new year. They’ve added $27 million to the 2019 payroll without bringing in a single player that looks like an average-or-better contributor for 2020 and beyond. Yonder Alonso is a square peg that blocks Daniel Palka, which would be less problematic if Alonso were a plus regular. Ivan Nova‘s purpose is to eat innings for a young rotation, but he’s off the books after 2019 and doesn’t do anything to help build a competitor. Alex Colome is certainly a good reliever and looks like the most useful addition, but he’s a reliever nonetheless and is limited in his ability to help move the needle. James McCann is horrible.
The offseason is by no means over and the White Sox still have time to come through, but the clock is ticking. There’s a real chance they ink Machado or Harper, though history suggests it’s not the most likely outcome and if they continue to let the remainder of the market pass them by, they’re taking on a lot of risk that they won’t be able to improve themselves enough to make the 2020 plan happen. Any shift in focus to 2021 will be done with the idea that the rebuild can’t fail if one keeps moving the goalposts. However, a process kick-started with the luxury of trading Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana shouldn’t lead to punting four seasons; that’d be a failure in of itself.