Last week, I filed my free agent primer for the 2019-20 MLB offseason, then sat back and prepared to put it out of my mind until the new year. There was once a time when MLB teams rushed to sign the top available players in a bid to, you know, compete for a World Series. Not so much anymore.
Now teams are content to shop for free agents the way I shop for Halloween candy: cognizant of the fact prices will drop through the floor on November 1 (or in MLB’s case, come spring). This is the end result of decades of leaguewide wage suppression tactics and an influx of TV and streaming money that ensures profitability regardless of team performance or attendance. And the goonish, winning-obsessed egomaniacal billionaire owners of the 1990s—George Steinbrenner, Mike Ilitch, and others—have given way to private equity vampires who care less (if at all) about putting W’s on the board than extruding zeroes from the team’s coffers. Truly, this is America’s pastime.
Thus, over the past few years, the most attractive free agents of their generation have been left to wait until Valentine’s Day to accept less money (proportional to league revenue) than their older brothers did. Some second- or third-tier free agents always sign early; the Braves, for instance, struck quickly this month to land relievers Will Smith and Chris Martin, giving their bullpen more musical clout, circa 2003, than any other in the league. But baseball fans could have signed off after the World Series expecting to spend more time with Mandalorian GIFs over the next two months than with Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg.
And yet, around noon on Thursday—Thursday, November Goddamn 21st, believe it or not—the Chicago White Sox signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal was the fifth-best free agent on my list, and for my money the best player in baseball at his position, and his arrival in Chicago augurs great things to come for the White Sox.
This contract sets a new franchise record for total value of a deal, which frankly ought to be kind of embarrassing for a big-market team in 2019. But this signing is a huge positive step forward for a franchise that’s been on one long, unsuccessful rebuild since Grandal was in college. And while one early and lucrative free-agent signing doesn’t fix the whole broken system, it’s better than the alternative, all 30 teams waiting until January and then trying to sign Grandal to a one-year show-me deal. Not just for Grandal, who gets his multiyear payday, but for the White Sox, who get their man before the winter meetings, and for baseball fans, who would otherwise be left to mull over sign-stealing scandals and depressing labor news, or to move on to other sports.
After the signing was announced, White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams spoke with ESPN’s Jeff Passan and described the Grandal deal as the latest cog in a yearslong plan to bring Chicago back to contention. “This was all planned,” he said. “Going back five years ago when we started this and started thinking about this. We get ourselves in position with our young core and we could augment it with guys like this.”
While the White Sox do have a promising young core that includes infielders Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson, outfielder Eloy Jiménez, and pitcher Lucas Giolito, it’s impossible to take Williams’s statement seriously. The franchise has been in a holding pattern since Giolito and Moncada were in middle school, and even in the five-year time frame Williams laid out, Chicago has already torn up one young core, sending Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and José Quintana out in the trades that brought back Giolito, Moncada, Jiménez, and others.
So great was Chicago’s bounty of young talent in 2017 that I believed them to be a bargain at 300-to-1 odds to win the World Series. The strength of their young core was a set of high-powered young pitchers, acquired either through trade or through a series of high draft picks, who looked set to make up a good White Sox rotation for years to come. After the Sale and Eaton trades in December 2016, I identified seven key pitchers who would be important contributors for Chicago; of those, Giolito is the greatest success, though his stellar 2019 campaign came a year after he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
The others have been less productive. Alec Hansen was just exposed to the Rule 5 draft, Carson Fulmer has an ERA of 6.56 and a BB/9 ratio of 6.1 for his career, and Reynaldo López posted a 5.38 ERA in 33 big league starts in 2019, which is even worse news in context: López was, all things considered, probably Chicago’s third-best starting pitcher last year. The three others—Michael Kopech, Zack Burdi, and Carlos Rodón—are currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, as is Dane Dunning, a former first-rounder and top-100 prospect acquired alongside Giolito in the Eaton trade.
Not only did Chicago not win the World Series in 2017, the team went 67-95 that year, then 62-100 in 2018, and finally 72-89 in 2019—but needed long-awaited breakout seasons from Giolito and Moncada to achieve even that much.
In short, signing Grandal was not part of some grand five-year plan, because in the past five years the White Sox have junked one long-term plan entirely and written off most of a second.
Even so, there are reasons for optimism. Moncada hit .315/.367/.548 last year, while 26-year-old shortstop Tim Anderson won the batting title by hitting .335/.357/.508. Longtime slugger José Abreu returns for one more year after accepting his qualifying offer. Chicago’s pitching staff is injury-plagued, but Kopech, Rodón, and Dunning should all be back next year. And while López and rookie Dylan Cease both struggled in 2019, they’re young enough that they could still turn into reliable big league starters.
And more help is on the way. In 2020, the White Sox will likely promote outfielder Luis Robert, a top-10 global prospect, to the majors. They could also call on a pair of recent top-five picks: Nick Madrigal, a 5-foot-7 infielder with some of the best bat-to-ball skills in the world, and first baseman Andrew Vaughn, one of the best college hitters of the past decade and a Zach Kram favorite.
To that equation, Grandal adds some of the best pitch framing in the game, as well as power and an elite batting eye. Grandal walked 109 times last year in 632 plate appearances. The three White Sox with the most walks in 2019—Moncada, Yolmer Sánchez, and Abreu—walked 120 times combined in 1,807 plate appearances.
The White Sox still have a ton of holes and zero depth: Giolito is their only good starting pitcher, and according to Baseball-Reference’s wins above average statistic, the Sox graded out below the median at six of nine offensive positions last season, including 29th-place finishes at DH and in the outfield on aggregate. Even the wealth of prospects Chicago has accumulated can go only so far.
The good news is that ready-made improvements for those outfield and rotation spots are available on the free-agent market—a market that contending teams are increasingly content to ignore. If the White Sox find some help at those positions, they could easily make a run in their execrable division.
The Royals and Tigers both look like they’re going to have trouble building a winning roster before rising sea levels force the Yankees and Rays to move inland and join the AL Central. The Indians have spent the past two years trying their hardest to dismantle their pennant-winning team. And while the Twins won 101 games last year, they did so mostly on the back of a phenomenal 36-11 record against 100-loss teams; they were the only playoff team last year with a losing record against winning teams. The White Sox may have only one good starting pitcher, but the Twins are scrambling to replace departing free agents Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson. If the White Sox sign Gio González or Julio Teheran, they’ll easily be able to match Minnesota’s rotation.
So even though Chicago just finished almost 30 games off the pace in the AL Central, the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than it’s been in ages. The greatest danger the team faces is viewing Grandal as the last piece rather than the first, and foregoing the upgrades necessary to bring this club the rest of the way to contention. The White Sox already wasted one phenomenal young core by surrounding it with flotsam; if they repeat that mistake, Williams’s five-year rebuilding plan will stretch far beyond Grandal’s contract.