White Sox Refreshed Offseason Outlook: The Big-Name Starting Pitching Options
Evaluating the top names on the starting pitching market and what it would take for them to end up with the White Sox.
Now that the non-tender deadline has come and gone, trade rumors have swirled, and virtual Winter Meetings are right around the corner, we have a much clearer picture of who is available for the White Sox to bolster the roster this offseason. So in this series, it’s time to take a refreshed look at the market Rick Hahn and company are entering, starting with the most pressing need: starting pitching.
Option A here is Trevor Bauer, that’s a no-brainer. We don’t need to list all of his accolades other than to say he is simply one of the best pitchers in baseball, 29 years old, and coming off a Cy Young season. On top of that, any big-market team would rather spend money on a free agent than expend prospect capital on a similar player in a trade.
Obviously, any number of teams will be bidding for Bauer’s services. Will the White Sox be able to outbid the likes of the Mets, Angels, Phillies, or any other big-market contender? History has shown that the answer is probably not, and as previously noted the hire of Tony La Russa will not help matters. But hey, it is 2020, anything can happen, and Rick Hahn simply wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t give it every effort. The problem is that beyond Bauer the free-agent market for starting pitchers is bleak, to say the least.
The next crop of free-agent starters features the likes of injury-prone veterans Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton, followed by question marks of Taijuan Walker, Jake Odorizzi, Jake Arietta, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, and old friend Jose Quintana. Some of these names could prove to be reliable third or fourth starters, especially in the right organization, but they all come with serious risks regarding injury, underperformance, or both.
Furthermore, is it worth a gamble on one of these veterans when that would be taking innings away from the younger pitchers in the organization? For my money, I’d rather see the back end of the rotation filled out by seeing if Kopech, Cease, or Dunning can take a step in their development as opposed to aiming for a career revival from the aforementioned veterans. Essentially, none of these names move the needle for a team that needs a dependable frontline starter, not a potentially dependable back-end starter. So the next place to look is the trade market.
The names we have heard in trade rumors that are of interest to the White Sox are, in no particular order, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, and Lance Lynn. So let’s take a closer look at what each player would bring to the table and what a realistic trade package would entail.
Blake Snell appears to be the favorite trade target among White Sox fans, largely due to his dominant, yet abbreviated performance in Game 6 of the World Series and throughout the 2020 playoffs. When Snell is right, he is one of the top pitchers in baseball. This was illustrated by winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2018 when he posted an ERA of just 1.89 across 180.2 innings with 221 punchouts.
Additionally, Snell has three years and $39 million remaining on his contract, which would be a bargain if he remains one of the best pitchers in baseball, something Rick Hahn continually mentions as a factor in any roster decision.
In 2019, however, the injuries started to pile up and Snell was not the same. It started with a short DL stint (as it was known at the time) in April after he broke his toe while allegedly moving a granite decorative stand in his bathroom. Then in July of 2019 he missed about five weeks after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove “loose bodies” in his elbow. The injuries resulted in a derailed 2019 campaign to the tune of a 4.29 ERA over just 107 innings.
A lack of durability is one of the main concerns with a blockbuster trade for Snell. His 2018 season was his high-water mark for innings pitched at just over 180, with the next highest total coming in 2017 with just over 129 innings. Additionally, he was on pace for under 150 innings had 2020 been a full season. Snell certainly looked the part of a stud pitcher in the playoffs, but his body of work throughout his career elicits more questions.
So what would a package for Snell look like? People have made the comparison to the package the White Sox received for Chris Sale in terms of prospect status. Sale was the same age and had the same cost certainty at the time of his trade that Snell has this offseason. However, Sale did not have the injury history and had a more decorated regular-season career up to that point, he was just missing the postseason experience. So this is not an apples-to-apples comparison and not a fair place to start.
What would be a fair place to start then? Eno Sarris of The Athetic proposed a trade idea, as seen below:
This package is just too hefty in my mind. Vaughn and Kopech are ranked as the 13th and 18th overall prospects in baseball, according to MLB.com, and Stiever is a promising arm ranked as the seventh-best prospect within the White Sox organization. To use the Sale litmus test, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech were the first- and 30th-ranked prospects, respectively, at the time they were dealt, and Luis Basabe was seen as a potential starting outfielder.
It’s worth noting that Kopech is the ironic thread here and although he’s still ranked so highly, his value around the league has taken a hit due to undergoing Tommy John surgery and his perception of being an enigma. But the point remains, these packages are too similar for the White Sox to pay that high a price for a pitcher that has question marks of his own.
And that leads to my second main concern regarding a Snell deal: exactly who the White Sox are dealing with. As a small-market team, the Rays have built a winning organization by fleecing other organizations in trades. Whether it is due to their scouting department, coaching staff, or both, they have continually taken other teams’ prospects that they weren’t as high on and turned them into key pieces on winning teams. On the other end of those deals, it always seemed like the Rays traded away the player at the absolute peak of their value.
The most obvious examples are the Rays dealing Chris Archer to the Pirates in exchange for a package that included Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, two current mainstays in their clubhouse, while Archer has struggled mightily during his time in Pittsburgh.
The other example is the Rays trading well-regarded left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to the Cardinals in exchange for Jose Martinez and a 25-year-old prospect, seemingly as a throw-in, named Randy Arozarena. Liberatore spent the season in the minors so the verdict is still out on him, but Arozarena of course went on to set postseason records and become a World Series hero. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has already admitted that it was a mistake to trade away Arozarena.
With these examples in mind, it is terrifying to think what the Rays would do with the White Sox prospect package mentioned above. Even more terrifying, what exactly would the White Sox be getting back in Snell given Archer’s fall from grace after his Tampa Bay departure? And what does it say about Snell that the Rays are trying to trade him now while he still has three years of control and he is coming off a dominant outing on the biggest stage?
If the price for Snell were to come down significantly from Eno Sarris’s projection, that could be enticing. A realistic package that would be easier to swallow would exclude Vaughn and have Kopech as the headliner, accompanied by a combination of likely 2-3 of the young arms in the White Sox system.
But in any deal with the Rays, we would have to live with the idea that whoever the White Sox give up has a good chance to be a primary contributor for a Rays team the White Sox could very well see in the postseason.
Stay tuned for the next piece where we will dissect the other potential trade targets of Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, and Lance Lynn.