Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Chicago White Sox.
2013 record: 63-99
Finish: Fifth place, AL Central
2013 final payroll: $116.7 million (12th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $88 million (T-16th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 26th
White Sox in six words: Rebuild is off to solid start
One of the beauties of a teardown is the ability to renovate it any way the imagination dares. Take these Chicago White Sox, in the midst of baseball's deconstruction. With upcoming financial flexibility, a creative mind at the head of the baseball-operations department and a desperate need for impact talent due to a farm system bereft of it, the White Sox decided to do something that sounds more absurd than it actually is.
Guarantee $68 million to a player who never has taken a single swing in the United States.
Jose Abreu, of course, is not your ordinary millionaire 68 times over. He is 26 years old, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and in possession of what some scouts believe is among the best right-handed-hitting power bats in the world. And after defecting from Cuba last fall, his price kept climbing and climbing, teams desperate to spend money with limited budgets for the draft and international free agency, even more desperate to do so on someone in his prime with a rare skill.
This is no ordinary risk for the White Sox. It is an out-and-out gamble, though it's the sort general manager Rick Hahn counterbalanced with intuitive, purposeful trades throughout the rest of the offseason. When you drop a six-year contract for more than $11 million a year because of the success of others – no way Abreu gets anything close to that if Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes aren't such monsters – it begs for prudence in other endeavors.
So in selling high on left-hander Hector Santiago, a maybe-starter whose walk rate was the fifth highest among pitchers with at least 149 innings last season, Hahn acquired center fielder Adam Eaton, a high-on-base, high-energy sort who will fit wonderfully atop the lineup. And in dropping closer Addison Reed and his soon-to-be-ballooning salary on Arizona, Hahn fetched third baseman Matt Davidson, a 22-year-old with a history of minor league success who should plug a weakness.
Hahn's other moves are of the smart and under-the-radar variety. Bringing in ground-ball impresario Ronald Belisario and left-handed specialist Scott Downs on low-risk, solid-reward one-year deals. Picking up starter Felipe Paulino on the cheap in hopes that 20 months after Tommy John surgery his arm still pumps out 95-mph fastballs. Trying to find a long-term solution at catcher by taking Adrian Nieto in the Rule 5 draft. Re-signing Paul Konerko to a one-final-hurrah deal, allowing fans angry with the misery of last season a nice bit of nostalgia.
Whereas other rebuilding teams often tread water waiting for their prospects to develop, the White Sox's farm system leaves a lot to be desired. And by a lot, we mean everything. So for now, Hahn wields a measure of aggressiveness because he must. It's the sort of mandate that makes GMs work harder; it's also the kind that without success gets them fired.
For all of the chatter this offseason about the White Sox potentially trading Chris Sale, that wasn't happening, not when Sale is arguably the most valuable player in all of baseball.
That's not hyperbole, either. It's fair to call Sale one of the 10 best starters in baseball. Let's consider the pitchers with whom he compares favorably: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Yu Darvish, David Price and Cole Hamels. Kershaw is going to cost roughly $5 billion as a free agent next offseason. Verlander signed a $180 million deal, King Felix one for $175 million, Scherzer will join them in that neighborhood as a free agent alongside Kershaw, Wainwright gets $97.5 million, Lee $120 million, Darvish $111 million including posting fee, Price about $30 million for the next two seasons and then the free-agent bounty after, and Hamels $144 million.
Sale is in the second year of a five-year deal that includes a pair of club options. If both are exercised, Sale will make $56.65 million through 2019.
It is an incredible deal, the sort that allows Hahn to tap into his big-market revenue streams and take risks in supplementing his core – one with great potential but a frightening amount of bustability, too.
Alongside Sale is Jose Quintana, another left-hander with dazzling numbers over the last two seasons, and they more than make up for the mediocrity of post-shoulder-surgery John Danks (who is still owed nearly $50 million for the next three years) and inexperience of two other potential rotation mates, the favorite, Erik Johnson, and Andre Rienzo, a hard-throwing Brazilian who flashed promise in September.
The lineup is one giant wild card, replete with potential – and potential messes. Best-case scenario, Abreu crushes for the sort of power he showed in Cuba and can stick at first base instead of an eventual move to designated hitter. Dayan Viciedo, another Cuban, overcomes his desire to swing away by balancing a walk or two with his big raw power. A third Cuban, Alexei Ramirez, plays well enough to draw a good trade and open up shortstop to prospect Marcus Semien. Either, or both, of the Garcias – right fielder Avisail, acquired in the Jake Peavy deal, and infielder Leury, the return for Alex Rios – takes ample tools and turns them into something special. And someone among the Nieto-Josh Phegley-Tyler Flowers triumvirate establishes himself as a consistent presence. Say what you will about A.J. Pierzynski, but stability at catcher matters to a pitching staff.
Other matters will work themselves out, as they often do with bad teams. Whether it's Nate Jones, the favorite, or someone else, a closer will emerge. Should Belisario or Downs thrive, each can procure a nice return via trade. This is where the White Sox are today: future open-ended, minds always wondering how to get better and, for the time being, succeeding at the latter on account of the former.
Rick Hahn might have the perfect pedigree. He earned a law degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northwestern. He spent two years as an agent under Jeff Moorad and another decade ascending the baseball-operations ladder with the White Sox. And when Kenny Williams got bumped up to the president's office, the day-to-day decision-making fell on Hahn. His trades so far: solid. His first draft: scouts liked it. Now comes the difficult part: Rescuing a bedraggled farm system and building upon the good start.
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