White Sox fans' crush on Manny Machado during the winter of 2018-19 is about to become White Sox fans' crush on Gerrit Cole during the winter of 2019-20.
Thanks to a wave of extensions signed by some of the best players in the game, Cole, the Houston Astros pitcher who threw against the South Siders on Wednesday night in the Lone Star State, is on track to be the most sought after player on next offseason's free-agent market.
There will be no Nolan Arenado, no Chris Sale, no Paul Goldschmidt. Whether you already thought Cole was more desirable than that trio or not, he's the last man standing. And with other names yanked off the market - guys like Justin Verlander, Xander Bogaerts, Aaron Hicks and Miles Mikolas - what was once an absolutely stacked free-agent class is significantly less stacked.
But Cole is still out there. Will he be the White Sox No. 1 target?
Rick Hahn's front office surprised last winter with its involvement in the sweepstakes for Machado and Bryce Harper, two 26-year-old superstar position players who could've been franchise centerpieces on the South Side. Instead, Machado's the rebuilding centerpiece in San Diego and Harper's brought championship expectations to Philadelphia.
All that financial flexibility that allowed the White Sox to be in on Machado and Harper - and allowed them to offer Machado a contract that included a guaranteed $250 million and could have reached as high as $350 million down the road - still exists. They passed on pricey consolation prizes and still have the ability to run with the big dogs next winter. Hahn promised the day Machado joined the San Diego Padres that "the money will be spent."
"The money will be spent," Hahn said during spring training. "It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. This isn't money sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest. It's money trying to be deployed to put us in best position to win some championships."
Of course, the free-agent market has changed dramatically thanks to all those extensions, and that could put more focus on the trade market. The White Sox farm system remains highly regarded and especially loaded at certain positions. Perhaps Hahn & Co. will be in a position by the end of the 2019 season where it knows what it has in certain guys and can deal from a area of depth.
But the free-agent market will still be tantalizing to and likely the primary focus of fans who desperately want to see the failures of last offseason rectified the next time around. And that means Cole.
Yeah, maybe it could mean Anthony Rendon, should he not come to an agreement with the Washington Nationals, but the White Sox just moved Yoan Moncada to third base, with solid results to this point. It wouldn't preclude such a move, but it might complicate it. Rendon has been very, very good and very, very under the radar while playing alongside Harper in D.C. With Harper playing for a division rival, what's Rendon done? He's got a .333/.428/.691 slash line in 34 games this season. Mercy.
Maybe it could mean J.D. Martinez, who has the ability to opt out of his deal with the Boston Red Sox. Maybe it could mean Nicholas Castellanos, the current division rival who has mauled the White Sox over the last couple years. Maybe it could mean Marcell Ozuna or Madison Bumgarner or Stephen Strasburg. (Wait, Stephen Strasburg? Yeah, he's got an opt-out clause he could take advantage of this offseason, too, but are the offers going to be worth it to make him pass up the $100 million he's still due to get from the Nats?)
But all signs point to Cole being the biggest prize of the upcoming free-agent class. He's just 28 years old as of Wednesday night's outing against the White Sox and would look pretty darn good at the top of any rotation in baseball. Last season, Cole was superhuman, posting a 2.88 ERA and striking out 276 batters in 200.1 innings. He finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting. And the eye-popping continues in 2019. He was the game's leader in strikeouts coming into Wednesday night, with 93 of them in 60.2 innings, averaging nine strikeouts per start.
Whether you're level of confidence on the future of the White Sox starting-pitching situation lives on the top floor or in the basement, no one is going to argue that a pitcher of Cole's caliber wouldn't fit with the White Sox. Even if Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodon and Dane Dunning bounce back from their Tommy John surgeries to become All-Star type pitchers and Dylan Cease comes up and sets the world on fire and Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito continue to progress, adding Cole to that group is still a no-brainer.
The other end of that, though, is the less rosy outlook, the one where Kopech and Rodon and Dunning disappoint after their recoveries, where Cease goes through growing pains, where Lopez and Giolito don't live up to the potential they brought with them when they were acquired. The most likely scenario is probably somewhere in the middle. Not all prospects pan out, but the White Sox have amassed enough good ones that they are expected to hit on a few of them.
Regardless, though, there's a place for Cole in any scenario.
In the wake of the news of Rodon's surgery, which will knock the lefty out until the second half of the 2020 season, Hahn hinted that starting pitching might be more of a priority in the upcoming offseason. While the White Sox showed their commitment to bringing in a top-flight player from outside the organization with their pursuits of Machado and Harper last winter, perhaps that player ends up being a starting pitcher rather than a position player.
"Ultimately we're going to have to, in all probability, go outside the organization to augment in certain spots," Hahn said earlier this month. "Could it conceivably be at the end of this year we feel we have to add a proven, veteran-type starter, a guy to help us out toward the front of the rotation? Absolutely, but let's way to see how the rest of this year goes, let's see what progress the guys in the minors make, what the guys here look like at the end of this season and then make an assessment.
"None of us are smart enough at the start of this process to say 'You know what, three years from now we're going to need to go out and add a starter.' But we did know three years ago there was going to come a point where we needed to add something. That part's not totally unexpected."
Fans jaded by how the Machado sweepstakes turned out will surely meet the notion of the White Sox landing a top-of-the-line free agent with skepticism. Free agency is often, if not almost exclusively, about money, and the White Sox offered Machado less guaranteed money than the Padres did. Machado went with the Padres.
And so with another round of free agency coming, will the White Sox be able to win over a free agent the caliber of Cole?
Another complication in this matter is Cole's status as a pitcher. Cole's likely not going to get the decade-long deal Machado got as a 26-year-old infielder. But will the White Sox, who have a reputation, deserved or not, of not wanting to offer lengthy deals to pitchers, decide Cole's worth the same amount of years he and the rest of the market thinks he is? Hahn's made a point of trying to shatter those kinds of preconceived notions about the White Sox during this rebuilding process. But fans aren't likely to change their minds until the White Sox actually convert, of which Hahn is well aware.
"The, in my opinion, false narratives about this organization going back several years was everything from that we would never rebuild because the fans wouldn't tolerate it to we would never incur a penalty in terms of signing amateur talent, which we obviously did with Luis Robert. And it was written right up to a few weeks before the Jimenez and Cease trade that we would never make a trade with the Cubs that could potentially help them because of the supposed rivalry between our two organizations," Hahn said during SoxFest in January, well before Machado and Harper made their decisions.
"I'm not sure how many other so-to-speak false narratives about this organization are out there other than they won't spend top of market for a free agent. We'd love to disprove that during the coming weeks. We certainly have extended offers that would ruin that narrative, if accepted, but we're not there yet. So if for whatever reason we fail to convert this time around, perhaps that narrative will exist for another year, but we look forward to proving that one false like we have the others."
Obviously what happened happened, and so now Hahn does have to look to next winter to prove that preconceived notion false.
Cole looks like he'll be the next big item on White Sox fans' wish lists, and he'd be an obvious fit as the South Side rebuilding project moves toward contention mode. It's up to Hahn and his front office to land the big fish and add some serious heft to the rebuild.