If there’s one thing surly White Sox fans on Twitter love, it’s trying to throw Rick Hahn’s words back in his face. Digitally, of course.
And no refrain gets the GM more Twitter roastings than when he promised, after the team failed to win the Manny Machado sweepstakes in 2019, that “the money will be spent.”
The White Sox reportedly guaranteed Machado $250 million, with the potential for more, in that free-agent derby. It wasn’t enough, obviously, as the Padres guaranteed $300 million and Machado signed up to spend a decade in sunny San Diego. But, hey, the money would be spent.
And it was.
Fans might take a little convincing, but the money was spent, all right. While there hasn’t been a nine-digit contract handed out – the only way money can be spent, according to some – the team’s payroll grew to the largest it’s ever been in 2022, approaching $200 million by season’s end, per FanGraphs. Since losing out on Machado, the White Sox gave big free-agent deals to Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Liam Hendriks and José Abreu. They gave a contract extension to Lance Lynn. They gave new contracts to young core pieces Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada.
It adds up.
But this is not me lecturing you, the fan, on why you should settle for what the White Sox have already done. Obviously, the White Sox want to be champions. Baseball’s winning teams tend to swim in the deep end of the free-agent pool. Even more, they tend to participate in an annual arms race during the winter to load up and give themselves the best chances of besting one another the following October.
I’m telling you that you’re not being unreasonable to expect more than small moves from a team that’s trying to win the World Series, especially one that has a whole lot of improving to do after a shockingly disappointing .500 season.
By sheer roster reality, the White Sox cannot be limited to small moves this winter. They need an everyday second baseman. They need another starting pitcher. They need an everyday left fielder, should they decide this is the end of the Abreu Era, allowing Jiménez and Andrew Vaughn to set up camp as the everyday DH and first baseman, respectively. Small moves alone won’t fill those needs – and all the others, like power hitting, left-handed hitting, defensive improvement and possibly making up for Abreu’s production, to name a few – not adequately enough, anyway.
But that’s seemingly going to be difficult to accomplish. Because the money was spent.
If you read any of the fine work my compatriots on the beat did out in Las Vegas – such as James Fegan’s latest for The Athletic – you’re aware that the White Sox aren’t expected to make any big splashes this winter, that they’re expected to pursue a payroll similar to the one they started the 2022 season with, that they’re far more likely to pursue trades than free-agent signings, that they’re counting on improvement from the guys already on the roster to return this team to the realm of World Series contenders.
As we’ve been talking about for months now, they’re somewhat boxed in. They rebuilt and got the roster they wanted. And now, for better or worse, they’re stuck with it.
“We’re in the position we placed ourself in contractually with some of our commitments,” Hahn told Fegan and others Tuesday at the GM meetings. “We made these commitments because we believe in the talent we committed to. And part of the goals for next year is to get some of the guys who underperformed to get back to accustomed levels. Big part of our improvement will come from that area, we hope.”
Hahn might not be talking in specifics, and he wouldn’t be expected to, but he sounds like a man with a budget that’s left little wiggle room to make significant additions or changes. He already did away with the idea that a drastic overhaul was coming to the South Side, trumpeting the in-place core as championship caliber while knowing that the bulk of it just turned in woeful individual seasons all at the same time. Now he seems to be leaning on the lesson he learned from the Machado pursuit and setting expectations low – or refusing to set them at all – by letting folks do their own math.
It should be noted, of course, that when anyone does that math, it’s an estimate. Obviously, we know what players are being paid, but we don’t know what projected budgetary numbers the White Sox are working with behind closed doors. It doesn’t take an exact accounting of the White Sox’ finances, however, to put two and two together. And with Fegan reporting an ideal-ish number of $180 million and with FanGraphs currently projecting a payroll of $173 million, well, there doesn’t seem to be room for Aaron Judge. Or maybe for anyone making significantly more than $10 million.
Why? Because $18.25 million was already spent on Grandal, who’s coming off the worst season of his career and would net the White Sox nothing in a trade. Because $17.8 million was already spent on Moncada, who’s coming off a similarly miserable offensive season and would net the White Sox nowhere near his peak value in a trade. Because $18.5 million was already spent on Lynn and nearly $14.5 million was already spent on Hendriks and $17 million was already spent on Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman.
Moncada will be making almost $25 million next year. Jimenez will be approaching $14 million next year. Robert will be making $15 million in 2025.
Folks, the money was spent.
This was the plan all along, and Hahn & Co. earned rightful praise for locking up core pieces on lengthy extensions, seemingly getting team-friendly value for what was expected to be a boatload of talent. The truth is that’s certainly still possible, and the White Sox are still capable of winning and winning big by placing their faith in this group. An offseason strategy of letting Pedro Grifol and his new coaching staff work with these guys and hoping for dramatic internal improvement might not energize the South Side during Hot Stove season, but it could set it on fire next summer, if everything goes according to plan.
But the time to win is now. The White Sox, even after missing the playoffs in 2022, are attempting to win the World Series in 2023. Hahn’s front office will by no means “stand pat,” there will be new faces, but will there be any participation in baseball’s arms race? If the Astros make a big upgrade, if the Yankees make a big upgrade, if the Guardians or Twins bolster their rosters in the Central, will the White Sox be able to compete?
One thing seems sure, this is going to be hard. The White Sox are going to have a difficult time making the improvements they need to get back to the top of the AL in 2023.
They seem to be more and more intent on letting their best hitter seek employment elsewhere, which could be as much about Abreu’s cost as it could be about making sure neither Vaughn or Jiménez have to play the outfield. They’re seemingly focused on trades, which will be hard to pull off considering a farm system not treated kindly by the rankings. It’s unclear exactly what kind of package the White Sox could construct to land an impact player.
The White Sox are by no means obligated to spray the free-agent market with a firehose full of cash. If Jerry Reinsdorf and the team want to spend a certain amount of money, that’s their prerogative, fan frustration be damned. That’s how this works. And heck, they spent more than the majority of the league in 2022, with a payroll that ranked in the top 10 in the game.
But this team needs to improve if it wants to win the World Series. It needs to be better than the Astros and the Yankees and the Guardians and the Rays and the Blue Jays and the Mariners. It needs to be a whole lot better than it was last season. Can it do that like this?
The White Sox might have to. This is the world they created for themselves.
The money, it turns out, was spent.