The huge-revenue Yankees and Dodgers have predictably popped up as interested suitors for both superstars. The Phillies wouldn't typically count as a usual suspect, but the $2.5 billion TV contract the team pulled down four years ago, combined with a clean balance sheet and a solid collection of young talent, have made Philly one of the top projected destinations for one or both too.
But there's one dark horse team whose name keeps popping up again and again. It's the same team that hasn't engineered a splashy free-agent signing since...Albert Belle? That would be the White Sox, this year's Hot Stove X Factor.
The South Siders lost 100 games last season, which would normally eliminate most teams from making a huge free-agent splash. But Harper and Machado are both just 26, uncommonly young for free agents. They both possess well-rounded skill sets that should age well. And they hit the open market at a time when Chicago has tons of money to work with. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Sox right now are projected to carry a tiny $71.5 million payroll into Opening Day -- so there's tons of room to spend.
- 2018 Result: 62-100, fourth place in AL Central
- Key free agents: Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson,Hector Santiago, James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, Jeanmar Gomez
- Needs: Outfield, third base, starting pitching, relief pitching, a big, honking, franchise-altering move
The reason the White Sox have all that payroll room is because they've methodically cashed in veterans for dynamic prospects, in the process building a core of mid-20s-and-younger players that's among the most promising in baseball -- at both the major league and minor league level. The question is if and when that upside might translate into results.
In the rotation, 24-year-old right-hander Lucas Giolito and 26-year-old left-hander Carlos Rodon populated top prospect lists coming up, and have all shown flashes of ability at the major league level. We're just waiting for them to put it all together. Giolito struck out just 125 batters in 173 1/3 innings last season, while walking a frightening 90. Rodon managed just 90 strikeouts against 55 walks over 120 2/3 innings. Giolito owns one of the prettiest curveballs in the game, while Rodon's slider is pure filth when it's on. The White Sox can be patient with both pitchers, along with 24-year-old right-hander Reynaldo Lopez. Acquiring Giolito and Lopez in the same trade for Adam Eaton could, over time, prove to be a coup of the highest order.
Yoan Moncada was the prize of the Chris Sale megadeal. The No. 2 prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2017 season, Moncada's calling card has been his precocious patience at the plate. He flashed a 13 percent walk rate and a .390 on-base percentage in the minors and has walked nearly 11 percent of the time in the bigs. This despite making his major league debut just past his 21st birthday.
The problem (one of them anyway) is that Moncada can sometimes be too passive. He's struck out in more than one-third of his major league plate appearances, too often either taking a called third strike, or taking early-count strikes that bury him in a hole. There's a powerful hitter hidden under here, one who works the count in his favor under the right circumstances, but also attacks early-count meatballs and punishes them. At age 23, he has tons of time to get there.
The even better news is that the next wave of prospects is even better. After a modest first two minor league seasons, Eloy Jimenez has exploded, joining Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the best hitters not yet in the majors. He batted a massive .337/.384/.577 last season, swatting 53 extra-base hits in 108 games. While the Sale and Eaton trades both looked exciting for the Sox when they happened, getting Jimenez and talented right-hander Dylan Cease for Jose Quintana could prove to be the masterstroke.
Jimenez has lots of company in terms of future White Sox talent too. Nick Madrigal resembles Jose Altuve both in terms of size and his impressive hitting tools. Madrigal, the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, wields enough bat control to get prospect hounds thinking about future batting crowns. Flame-throwing righty Michael Kopech has top-of-the-rotation potential if he can bounce back from Tommy John surgery, Cuban outfielder Luis Robert projects as a major league starter at worst, and could be a fair bit better than that. There's plenty of depth at every level further down the prospect list too.
So what do you do with all that future upside? Do you stay the course and build slowly, or supercharge the process with a $300-$400 million signing that could move the Sox a lot closer to their goals?
Signing Machado or Harper doesn't win a World Series right away. It probably doesn't even get you playoff contention in 2019. What it would do is change the perception of the franchise for a generation, establishing the White Sox as a team willing to do whatever it takes to attract the best talent.
You don't win trophies for that. But two, three, or four years from now, a trophy could follow anyway.