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White Sox keys to contention: Santander and Bauer

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All roster problems solved, in two easy steps!

“We are a team that should reasonably have championship aspirations,” Rick Hahn confidently bellowed from the comfort of his kitchen in his first postseason Zoom press conference. It was the thematic pièce de resistánce in the hour-long interrogation from a slew of reporters hungry for the team’s impending offseason plans. And after the painful elimination The White Sox were handed by an Oakland A’s team they should have beaten in the first round of the playoffs, it was clear Hahn and associates were ready to make changes. The mutual “conscious uncoupling” with manager Rick Renteria was the first evidence of this mindset, and Hahn made it clear that was only the beginning.

In the press conference, Hahn also confirmed that the White Sox not only had high hopes, they had a plan in place to accomplish that goal. Most notable were the plans for hiring a new manager (a plan that has since devolved into an unmitigated disaster) and the intention to engage in the next phase of “talent acquisition,” an indication that the oft-miserly, penny-pinching Jerry Reinsdorf was going to temporarily crawl out from beneath the rock of personnel loyalty he espouses as scripture to throw his billions at a championship.

That was 2 months ago.

Since then, the Sox hired Tony La Russa as manager, a move that has been met with critical scorn and little fan support, and was subsequently followed by the revelation made public that La Russa had just received his second DUI in recent memory. Exacerbated by the fact that his very public political beliefs stand in stark contrast with the belief system that energizes this youthful, progressive Sox squad and his near decade-long absence from managing, the hiring reeks of a despotic, mutiny-inducing power play from Reinsdorf, who also happens to be La Russa’s close personal friend.

Subtraction by addition, it seems.

Meanwhile, absolutely no offseason acquisitions have been made. The La Russa hiring has also clearly caused a split within the front office. Hahn and Ken Williams seemed nothing short of despondent when announcing the La Russa hire, a statement that was overshadowed by Twitter discovering a press release error with AJ Hinch’s signature, indicating he was targeted as the choice by most anyone with common sense. In other words, everyone who works for the Sox except Jerry.

The other major offseason task is attacking the free agent market and the trading block with aplomb and ferocity. So far, the market has been mostly quiet. Rightfully so. Some of the top talent on the market deserve the chance to field competing offers. And with only a few noteworthy free agents at the top of the field, followed by dozens of milquetoast options, none of whom would realistically provide more than a season or two of qualifiable help, the Sox will need to be prepared to act fast and forcefully.

The tides of history suggest that Reinsdorf will only go so far in that direction. To this day, the biggest contract the White Sox have ever offered is last year’s four-year pact with Yasmani Grandal for a measly $73 million. That pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions being doled out by teams in smaller markets with less revenue, like Milwaukee, San Diego, and Arizona.

The time has come for that to change. The White Sox have two major holes: right field and starting pitching. They cannot solve one without the other, but they need to be prepared to spend money for one, and they need to give up some young talent for the other. But both can be done and the answer is clear: The White Sox need to sign Trevor Bauer and trade for Anthony Santander.

Why? For starters, there are no other realistic, viable solutions that will properly fix Chicago’s roster gaps. Most are still busy tiptoeing around stopgap solutions because Sox reporters and fans alike are conditioned to the constant betrayals of Reinsdorf, but with Hahn at the helm and the pieces in place, no more excuses can be made. And if they can accomplish bringing in these two players, the White Sox will be World Series contenders for the better part of the next decade.

If they can’t, every move over the last five years will have been a waste.

Surveying a barren field

Chiefly, most of the free agent solutions being bandied about are plainly not a good fit. George Springer, while arguably the best position player on the market this year, will command a contract far more lucrative than his projections suggest. He’s already lost a step and his contact and on-base metrics took a sharp decline in 2020, lest we forget the cloud of shame that will brand his name and visage like a scarlet letter for the remainder of his career, a result of the cheating scandal he actively participated in during his tenure with the Astros.

Furthermore, Springer is likely to be given an annual salary of $25 million per year or more. Leadership qualities and playoff experience notwithstanding, he is not going to be worth his price. This contract will be an albatross before it’s halfway complete.

Marcell Ozuna would be the preferred marquee free agent here because of his stout bat and, through his Dominican roots, his strong heritage connection to the heavy Latin American presence in the clubhouse. But he too will be likely be overpaid, and Ozuna will likely end up on a team that will let him stay in left field. After all, he’s a mediocre defender and, even if he wanted to make the switch to the other corner, signing him to play right field will be an expensive way to sustain a defensive problem that already exists. No amount of home runs will cover those blemishes. And if Ozuna comes into the fold, in two years the Sox will have three players that all need to shift to DH to optimize the lineup.

That’s not a problem worth paying more than $20 million a year for.

The rest of the field of free agent outfielders ranges from mediocre to abysmal. Brett Gardner? Nick Markakis? A reunion with Adam Eaton? All are too old, and none of our remaining minor league outfield prospects are close enough to the majors to justify signing someone so close to retirement. Joc Pederson? Hunter Renfroe? Yasiel Puig? All show sharp statistical decline and wouldn’t outperform Adam Engel by much, if at all.

Jackie Bradley Jr. provides a certain sense of intrigue, but he is as inconsistent at the plate as any player in the major leagues. Assuming his shift from center to right would even be something he’d consider, the chances that his defensive statistics would sustain in the corner are slim, but a left-handed bat at the bottom of the order would be a nice addition.

Michael Brantley actually makes some sense, and the optics of Robbie Grossman or Eddie Rosario joining the team actually feels safe as well, though none are true right fielders. All three, however, would solidly contribute for an affordable salary, and could be spelled by the ever-improving Engel. But the overlying issue remains: None of these players would be a long-term solution. All three reek of “stop-gap” in a lineup that is otherwise filled with positional standard-bearers. And at 35 years old, Brantley still has a solid bat, but unless he hits .300 and gets a Gold Glove nomination, it’s hard to feel like it would do much more than put the Sox in this very same position at the conclusion of next season.

The foundation of the future

Even though Reinsdorf continues to prove himself the ultimate foil for good executive decision-making, you’d assume that he would at least entrust Hahn to retain the core he has built. Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, and reigning AL MVP José Abreu are all secured on the team for at least the next two seasons, some for four or more years. Lucas Giolito was heavily involved in the hiring of new pitching coach Ethan Katz, so a long-term deal for him could be coming in short order.

The White Sox will also be a very desirable free agent destination for years to come. Furthermore, they have arbitration control over young studs Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Nick Madrigal, Andrew Vaughn, Jared Kelley, Dane Dunning, and Garrett Crochet for the next several years. Assuming absolutely no meaningful, substantive additions are made to the lineup, The White Sox boast a magnificent roster that will contend annually in a very weak AL Central for at least the next five seasons.

Furthermore, we haven’t even discussed the treasure trove of Tier 2 prospects who are still not quite major-league ready, including Jonathan Stiever, Micker Adolfo, Jake Burger, Blake Rutherford, Gavin Sheets, Matthew Thompson, Andrew Dalquist, Luis González, James Beard, Yermín Mercedes, Yolbert Sánchez, and Seby Zavala.

Beyond these youngsters, the White Sox farm system gets a bit thin, save for DJ Gladney, who is primed to rise through the minor league rankings quickly. But Keith Law and other minor league adjudicators have not given the White Sox farm system enough credit since they started calling up their great young prospects. Because of injuries and short-term struggles, the once-lauded wunderkinds that still thrive in their farm’s treasure trove are now being cast off as long-shot hopefuls with low ceilings despite remarkable tools and pedigree.

The Sox went from having arguably the best farm system in baseball to being ranked in the middle of the league as Moncada, Jiménez and Robert made the leap to the majors. But between the blue-chip prospects atop the roster and the other young men listed above acquired thanks to savvy trades and excellent draft strategy, there is a lot more prospect capital in Chicago than it gets credit for, very little of which will actually be able to factor into the suddenly-active window of contention on the South Side.

The Sox also have a remarkably underrated bullpen. Assuming they bring back Alex Colomé, which they’d be wise to do, they’d be reuniting one of the great bullpen arms in the league with Aaron Bummer, Matt Foster, Jace Fry, Codi Heuer, Jimmy Cordero, and Evan Marshall, all of whom are proven contributors in high-leverage situations. Off-the-field issues aside, under the tutelage and command of a bullpen savant like La Russa, the White Sox bullpen might be their most valuable asset in 2021. And considering the Sox had a top-five offense in 2020, that’s quite a statement.

This also means Colomé isn’t a priority. If Reinsdorf is willing to keep him for a competitive market rate in addition to the team’s more pressing needs, his presence would give the already-excellent bullpen stability and depth. But ultimately, the money should be focused on the rotation. One can only hope Colomé loves the Sox enough to take a pay cut.

If things devolve for a core player at any position on the field, Rick Hahn and company are likely ready to pounce on a trade mid-season that would rectify some unforeseen issue, but even if that weren’t the case, The White Sox lineup as is stands could easily win 90+ games for years to come. Whether or not they’d be able to compete in the playoffs with heavy hitters like The Yankees, The Rays, The Twins, or The A’s remains to be seen. The Angels and Blue Jays figure to be potent rivals for the next few years as well. And beating The Dodgers or The Braves in 7 games would essentially be a pipe dream.

But the talent Rick Hahn has compiled for The White Sox is undeniable. They annihilate the ball at the plate, their collective performance on defense is highly undervalued by sports pundits across the spectrum, and their aggressive nature on the base paths will only increase with La Russa at the helm. Areas to improve aside, the team has an elite foundation.

Coffee is for closers, Bauer is for crowns

Pitching depth (and pitching quality) is the most important issue the White Sox need to address this winter, and if Reinsdorf and company want a return to the caffeinated rush of victory in October, the top priority should be to throw every available dollar at the free agent most likely to become baseball royalty: Trevor Bauer. With Marcus Stroman accepting his qualifying offer from the Mets (thanks in part to his being turned off by the Sox hiring the problematic La Russa), there are absolutely no other starting pitchers on the market who are even remotely as valuable.

The only two other names who would bring any reliability to the rotation are Jake Odorizzi and James Paxson. Assuming either could stay healthy, neither is feasibly trustworthy beyond 2021. Meanwhile, short term solutions like Masahiro Tanaka, former Sox stalwart Jose Quintana, and the like who will sustain an astronomical ERA and WHIP are not going to be any more advantageous than allowing Dane Dunning the chance to continue to grow.

Meanwhile, Bauer would bring an elite arsenal and work ethic to the front of a rotation that desperately needs both. Crochet, who would likely benefit from an elder statesman and leader like the freewheeling Bauer, could slot into the bullpen and act as a swing for Kopech and Cease when needed. (Or he could just go back to the minor leagues to refine his command and ensure his health). And with Bauer, Giolito, Keuchel, Kopech and Cease potentially going for The Sox in any series, it’s hard to see them losing many games.

It’s also worth noting that if Reinsdorf was really willing to pay Zack Wheeler $125 million for five years, he’d be foolish not to offer Bauer more. In fact, I’d imagine he’s rather bitter that Wheeler took a pay cut to go to the now floundering Phillies. But if the Sox do bring on Bauer, who is likely to earn in excess of $30 million per year, their pitching staff immediately becomes the class of the American League.

Giolito, with maybe the best changeup in baseball, is one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game, fresh off a perfect game and Cy Young caliber season in 2020. Dallas Keuchel, who stalled in the playoffs, had a resurgent year in his new leadership role during the regular season. Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease have some control issues to work through, but both are unfathomably young and possess true “Staff Ace” potential. Spearheading that foursome with Bauer would give The White Sox a total reprieve from the shortcomings of recent free agency periods past.

And suddenly The Dodgers and The Braves don’t seem so scary.

Consequently, Bauer’s offensive free agent counterpart George Springer becomes a fiscal improbability knowing Reinsdorf’s history of spending (or lack thereof) — but that shouldn’t even register as a problem for Rick, Ken and company as Springer’s deal is almost assured to be untenable beyond a year or two.

The financial focus needs to be on Bauer. If they let him escape their grasp after losing out on Wheeler, Manny Machado, and Bryce Harper in consecutive years, The Sox will be shopping for an arm at the trade deadline whether they want to or not.

The white whale in right field

If Reinsdorf magically abandons his lugubrious ways and suddenly becomes a magnanimous spender and steward of his team’s success, it would be spectacular if the Sox could also sign Springer after bringing Bauer on board. The cost of both however would add well over $60 million to the payroll. Given the Reinsdorf restraints Sox fans are used to, it’s safe to assume that Bauer alone is a reach. That will leave a massive hole in right field still to be addressed.

Grossman, Brantley or Rosario would certainly fill in the gap in right field for 2021, but they would not answer the question for the remainder of the window of contention. Likewise, signing someone like Kyle Schwarber to play DH next season would be a savvy move as Vaughn continues to grow and Jiménez continues to try and prove himself as an everyday left fielder. What’s more, The Sox need a lefty bat. But come 2022, the minor league cup will overfloweth and the need for defensive balance could see Abreu be forced to face a changing of the guard and Jiménez accept a changing of roles on a team that’s still very much developing.

All this to say, the best way to fill the gap properly is clearly with a trade, and with the swaths of minor league talent the White Sox possess that will not be utilized in the near-term or long-term, they could strike a number of deals to address this issue during the coming weeks and months without losing too much depth.

The first name that comes to mind in a deal like this is Joey Gallo. To move him, Texas will almost assuredly require more talent than he is worth, but if he can be moved for, say, Jake Burger, Micker Adolfo, and Jonathan Stiever, I’d say that’s a win for both teams. Gallo would provide a much-needed left-handed power bat who draws walks and plays an excellent defensive right field, but he’s a strikeout black hole in the batting order, so giving up any more than a few mid-tier prospects seems like a risk to the long-term sustainability of success. But given their negotiating track record, I would think Texas would not move Gallo to Chicago unless Vaughn, Madrigal, Kelley, or Crochet were in the deal, all of whom I would hope Rick Hahn considers untouchable, save for the near-impossible scenario that The Sox could acquire a world class talent like Juan Soto or Bryce Harper.

The next popular name on the list of trade candidates seems to be David Peralta. Arizona faces a steep uphill climb if they’re going to contend in their division right now against the Dodgers and Padres. As it stands, I’d even argue that the Rockies pose a greater wild card threat than the Diamondbacks over 162 games. The Sox could easily pry Peralta from Arizona’s hands, but like Gallo, he likely won’t be worth the talent Arizona would seek.

If Arizona was willing to include Zac Gallen, I’d be open to moving a blue-chip prospect. Say the proposed deal looked something like Peralta and Gallen for Andrew Vaughn, Dane Dunning, Jake Burger, and Bernardo Flores Jr., both teams would benefit greatly. Gallen has front-of-the-rotation potential and Peralta’s left-handed contact bat would slot perfectly into the bottom third of the White Sox lineup, while Vaughn and Dunning would provide the Diamondbacks with the next generation Paul Goldschmidt and Dan Haren, backed by two more plus prospects who will require more time to develop but have high floor potential.

In reality, neither of these teams is likely to make such a trade. Texas is probably close enough to contention that moving Gallo doesn’t make sense unless they get elite prospects in return. Plus, the White Sox just got fleeced in the trade with Texas for Nomar Mazara by giving up Steele Walker, who had one of the best hit tools in the White Sox farm system. Hahn is probably going into negotiations with Texas with a more discerning mindset than before. And Arizona likely sees both Peralta and Gallen as franchise players, even during a retooling window, so the likelihood that they’d give over both (or either) for anything less than a package that included multiple Tier 1 prospects feels like a long shot.

So the question becomes: Is there any player that the Sox could trade for that would bring in the kind of player they’d need without eviscerating their entire minor league system? A quality right fielder with a solid bat and glove, and a good fit for a world-class clubhouse like Chicago’s? Above all else, a player who could be acquired without giving up one of the team’s top prospects? Does a player like that even exist?

Yes. Enter Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander.

He’s 26 years old and entering his prime, a balanced hitter who hits for contact and power to all fields from both sides of the plate, a Gold Glove-caliber defender, a quick and alert base runner for his size, and he, too, would likely be emboldened by a clubhouse that is blessed with a magnificent Latin American presence. What’s more, he’s in his arbitration years and, assuming he continues to progress the way he seems projected to, he will be a few years ahead of Baltimore’s window of contention. In the shortened season of 2020, the Orioles were able to ride momentum into some decent relevance, but among the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays, there just isn’t a realistic viability that has the Orioles ready to compete for the playoffs.

Despite all of their massive potential, Adley Rushcman, Grayson Rodriguez, Heston Kjerstad, DL Hall, and Ryan Mountcastle are all still a few years from being true impact players at the major league level. Someone like Santander is going to waste his talents in Baltimore and chances are that the front office knows it. He flies under the radar, and yet he’s a clear indomitable force. If he continues to progress at his current rate, the Orioles will play past their ability to get the most prospect capital in return for him.

The White Sox have more than enough minor league talent to pull off a deal like this, a deal that would both provide great depth to the Orioles and refrain from gouging the overall quality of the White Sox’s minor league teams. If I’m Mike Elias and Hahn called and offered me Dunning for Anthony Santander straight up, I’d make that trade without blinking. If I were Hahn, I might even include Sánchez, Adolfo or Burger just to make sure Elias says yes. Hell, even if the Sox traded all four for Santander alone, it would be a great exchange and both teams would still win this trade.

Sánchez and Burger both figure to be solid contributors at their positions at best, but have high floors. Worst case, they will both make excellent utility players but will more than likely be everyday players at some point. But Dunning, while showing he still has some work to do, showed the world in 2020 that the hype of being a true front-of-the-rotation pitcher is real. The Orioles need pitching depth that is close to the majors, and Dunning fits the bill perfectly.

Meanwhile, Adolfo might just have the best defensive arm in the minor leagues. So realistically, both he and Dunning could contribute to a young team in the next year or two, and be much more aligned with the age of the players Baltimore figures to have in its upcoming window of contention. By the time the Orioles are ready to compete, Santander will be approaching 30 as he enters his UFA season; needless to say, it would be smarter for Baltimore to trade him now.

The White Sox, on the other hand, would acquire the perfect player for their lineup at the perfect age and the perfect level of development. Batting seventh or eighth, just after Luis Robert or a quality DH, Santander would provide excellent pop and a switch-hitting bat to set the table for Madrigal, and likely would see a boost in RBIs and OPS hitting behind so many astounding hitters in Chicago. He also could spell the 4 and 5 slot from time to time and be quite reliable.

With someone like Santander, a slugger like Schwarber batting seventh or eighth makes lots more sense than it would with someone like Rosario or Grossman next to him. And defensively, Santander would likely be a better player than top free agent Springer. Plus, Santander will come at a fraction of the cost and with much more positive chemistry for the clubhouse.

But the real evidence is in the statistics. In his career, Santander has averaged .252/29/91 over 162 games. In 2020, extrapolated for a full season of at bats without injury, he would have hit .260/35/110. In the bottom of a potent White Sox lineup, Santander’s projections are astounding. Even with a slight drop in at bats, it’s not unreasonable to assume Santander hits a clean .275/40/120. Those are video game numbers.

Imagine what he’d in the 5 slot.

Meanwhile, Hahn, who is a magician at securing long-term, team-friendly deals with players who outperform their financial markup, could offer Santander a three to five-year extension to avoid arbitration in the $5-$7.5 million per year range. For a player who will likely play at a $15 million per year level but earn only half of that for years to come, that contract would be a steal. All Santander did in Baltimore last year was hit .261/.315/.575 and get a Gold Glove nomination for a fledgling team that doesn’t even come close to matching the offensive talent of the Sox. Given what he could be acquired for, it’s unlikely more value or a better fit could be acquired at the position.

This works from a long-term planning perspective as well. The White Sox are considered frontrunners to land two-way Cuban wunderkind Oscar Luis Colás, assuming he is released from his contract contentions with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Japan. At age 22, he’s not far away from being major league ready, but he will need a season or two to get to know the speed of the game as both a position player and a pitcher.

In a perfect world, when Abreu’s contract ends, he will move from player to bench coach and team ambassador, Vaughn will move from DH to 1B, Jiménez will slide over from LF to DH, and Colás (assuming we can sign him) will likely be ready to join the lineup. If the Sox can acquire Santander to play right field and Colás in left, with Robert in center, The Sox will be a veritable defensive juggernaut in all outfield positions, with the flexibility to let Colás pitch every fifth or sixth day if he proves his value as a pitcher. Then Eloy can spell one of the corner outfield positions and give Santander or Vaughn a chance to rest their legs without losing their bats.

With the pieces in place ...

Let’s just say, for the sake of seeing it all play out as hoped, Hahn signs Bauer and trades Dunning and Adolfo for Santander. Let’s also assume that he signs Schwarber to a one-year “prove it” deal in the $9-$11 million range to play DH and spell Eloy in left field from time to time. This is what The White Sox depth chart will look like:

Daily lineup
R Anderson SS
S Moncada 3B
R Abreu 1B
R Jimenez LF
S Grandal C
R Robert CF
L Schwarber DH
S Santander RF
R Madrigal 2B

Bench
S Garcia UTIL
R Engel OF
L Collins C
R Mendick IF

Starting rotation
R Bauer SP
R Giolito SP
L Keuchel SP
R Kopech SP
R Cease SP

Bullpen
R Colomé CL
L Bummer SU
R Heuer RP
R Foster RP
L Fry RP
R Marshall RP
L Crochet LRP
R Cordero LRP

The White Sox would also still have Kelley and Vaughn in the pipeline. After the 2022 season, Abreu and Keuchel figure to be out of the mix, at least comparitively. Vaughn will slot in nicely where a one-year DH rental like Schwarber would end after the 2021 season until he takes over at first base. In the unlikely scenario that either Kopech or Cease turn into absolute busts, Crochet could slide over to the starting rotation from the bullpen and Kelley could be called up at any point. After 2023, Grandal will either take a pay cut to stay, move on to another team, or retire. In that case, Zack Collins, Mercedes, and Zavala all project as solid everyday catchers even if their bats never quite match their predecessor. And there’s enough depth in the rest of the farm system to sustain the team’s success for the better part of the next decade.

Outside of right field and the rotation, there are no other glaring holes in this lineup. There are no questions hanging over anyone’s ability or health. And there’s no doubt that every player on the roster will be in Chicago for at least the next two seasons. Assuming they can accomplish these tasks before spring training begins, The Sox will have the two things they desperately need: consistency and reliability. And this roster would make the White Sox the team to beat in the American League.

The best-laid plans ...

The bottom line is this: The Sox need to sign Bauer. This should be priority No. 1 every minute of every day for the front office until it’s done. Beat whatever offer he receives by a mile. Then get the Orioles on the phone and get Santander in a White Sox uniform. It won’t take too much prospect capital, and he’s a perfect fit for the team and the city of Chicago.

Anything in addition to those two moves would be welcome, albeit ancillary, but specifically bringing in a short-term DH until Vaughn gets some more quality progression at-bats would the perfect supplement. As stated, Schwarber would fit the bill well, as would Pederson or Carlos Santana. Otherwise, The Sox could easily rotate through a DH-by-committee among Abreu, Jiménez, and Grandal with Engel and Collins on the bench, but that wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

Even so, the White Sox have enough competitive talent and flexibility to compete as is, but competing is not always synonymous with winning. The time for settling has passed. Sox fans deserve better. Reinsdorf needs to open the checkbook for Bauer and our front office needs to offer up prospects for Santander. There are no other options that realistically answer the call to action.

After the 2020 season, the expectations on the South Side have been raised. This team is no longer rebuilding, they are on the brink of a championship. Anyone less than Bauer and Santander would be a letdown.

And, given the circumstances, a failure.