There’s usually one move early in the offseason that signals the real start of a specific offseason to me. It’s not the first move or the first stage. Rather, it’s the first move the White Sox didn’t have to make.
Last year, that move occurred on Oct. 26, when the Angels claimed Kevan Smith off waivers. Smith was a flawed player, but he had a nice year by his standards for the White Sox and stepped up behind the plate when Welington Castillo was suspended. His inability to stop a running game posed problems, and so the White Sox sought an upgrade at the position, first by putting Smith on waivers. They didn’t have to, but they chose to. The offseason was underway.
Technically, the White Sox winter began when they opened four 40-man roster spots on Monday by outrighting Manny Bañuelos, Ryan Cordell, Ryan Goins and Matt Skole, but all of them were on the vulnerable end of the 40-man roster, so that strikes me as a simple, mandatory item of business.
For me, one move among many made by the White Sox on Thursday put the winter in motion, and it’s the last one on this list.
It’s weird seeing José Abreu declare free agency, and the White Sox made a trade — a lot more on that in a little bit — but those were required by the circumstances.
With Josh Osich, the White Sox didn’t have to lose him. He finished the season tied for the bullpen lead in wins (four) and innings (67⅔), and led the entire staff in walk rate (5.5 percent). He also led the White Sox in homers allowed and had an ERA of 4.66, but he posted a 2.96 ERA over the final two months, with peripherals that matched and a new pitch mix (cutter-slider) to explain it.
With an arbitration figure of $1 million, cost wasn’t the problem. It’s just that Osich turned 31 in September and the three-batter minimum rule starts next year. Even with Osich pitching well, he still allowed a .298/.365/.439 line against righties in August and September. The Sox think there’s a better use of that roster spot, and thus the journey of intentional roster transformation begins.
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There was also one move that stood out for the opposite reason. For the second time this season, the White Sox dealt international money for the Texas Rangers for the sole purpose of getting the Rangers to buy out one of their expiring contracts previously thought untradeable.
At the trade deadline in July, the Rangers acquired Nate Jones for $1 million of international bonus money because they were willing to accept the $1.25 million buyout obligation Jones faced. Thursday, they acquired Welington Castillo, who was on the verge of being bought out of his option year for $500,000, for $250,000 more spending power. Sum it up, and the White Sox gave away $1.25 million of international bonus money they were free to use to avoid $1.75 million in buyouts.
These weird points-for-cash transactions are an unwelcome twist on what was until this point a harmless trend. The White Sox are no strangers to dealing international bonus pool money, and at one point it probably made sense. When the White Sox were limited to $300,000 bonuses because of the penalty incurred for signing Luis Robert and other teams were loading up for a run at Shohei Ohtani, one could see the White Sox trying to pry off working parts from teams who might have been blinded by mania.
Probably not by coincidence, that’s when they got their best talent. Since then, the returns have diminished substantially.
- July 15, 2017: Traded international bonus money to the Texas Rangers for Yeyson Yrizarri.
- Aug. 11, 2017: Traded international bonus money to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Ryan Burr.
- Nov. 16, 2017: Traded $500,000 of international bonus money to the Seattle Mariners for Thyago Vieira.
- —OHTANI SIGNS WITH ANGELS —
- March 28, 2018: Traded $250,000 of international bonus money to the Philadelphia Phillies for Ricardo Pinto.
- July 29, 2018: Traded $1.5 million of international bonus money to the New York Yankees for Caleb Frare.
- Dec. 11, 2018: Traded Yordi Rosario and $500,000 of international bonus money to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Iván Nova.
- —LUIS ROBERT PENALTY ENDS—
- July 31, 2019: Traded Nate Jones, cash and $1 million of international bonus money to Rangers for Joe Jarneski and Ray Castro.
- Oct. 31, 2019: Traded Welington Castillo and $250,000 of international bonus money to the Texas Rangers for Jonah McReynolds.
The Nova trade is a separate case, but the White Sox used international bonus pool money along with Rosario to improve their 25-man roster. I’d call that a productive use of the money. Burr looked like he was on the cusp of sticking in the White Sox bullpen before he tore his UCL, but if you can isolate the talent from the injury sidelining him, it’s a minor victory for the philosophy.
You have to stretch to give them company, but not by an unreasonable amount. Vieira gave the Sox velocity their high-minors didn’t have, but a lack of a control and a decent secondary pitch have capped his ceiling at Triple-A after multiple shots at the MLB lifestyle. Frare was promising enough to break camp with the Sox in 2019, but injuries and control issues swallowed his stock whole. We don’t have a lot of context for what international money can buy on the trade market, but this seems like an OK return while waiting to shed the max bonus restrictions.
Teams usually come roaring out of the gate when the penalty period ends. Here’s Baseball America’s Ben Badler on the Dodgers during the 2018-19 period:
The Dodgers couldn’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 in the 2015-16 or 2017-18 signing periods, so they aggressively attacked the 2018-19 period when they were out of the penalty box. That allowed them to beat other teams to the punch on Diego Cartaya, who ranked as the No. 3 international prospect for July 2 last year and the top player available from Venezuela. Some teams considered him the top overall international prospect in the class.
Here’s Badler on the Giants during the same period:
Out of the penalty in 2018, the Giants paid $2.6 million to sign Dominican shortstop Marco Luciano, the top 16-year-old prospect available last year and the No. 2 overall prospect, behind only Cuban center fielder Victor Victor Mesa. Luciano, now 17, has big offensive upside.
Here are the Washington Nationals, this year via MLB.com:
After spending the past two seasons using its international slot money to fill out depth, Washington targeted a few key players this year and landed one of the top pitchers from Venezuela.
The group was headlined by right-hander Andry Lara, No. 16 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 International Prospects list, who signed a deal worth $1.25 million, sources told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez.
The White Sox did spent a significant amount of money on an international prospect in their return to the forum, handing $2.5 million to shortstop Yolbert Sanchez. Yet it doesn’t mark a genuine return to competition because Sanchez will be 23 years old before he sees his first stateside action. He defected from Cuba, as did three of the White Sox’ top international signings from the previous year, and one of their max signings from the year before that.
Besides Sanchez, the White Sox tried their hand at Tatis lightning striking twice (whoa, Tatis Lightning) with Fernando’s brother Elijah, along with a few other low-six-figure signings, but they finished the initial flurry of signing with $2 million in reserve. They’ve since traded three-quarters of that to the Texas Rangers for two rookie-ball pitchers with no upward traction and a 23-year-old who has a .619 OPS in three tries at the short-season Northwest League. Sure, the White Sox have saved $1.75 million in buyouts, but why should we even care when the team is carrying a bottom-third payroll in a top-three market?
There isn’t yet a satisfying reason why the White Sox seem either indifferent to or frozen out of the international market save Cuban defectors. Once can only reverse-engineer a reason, in that the White Sox haven’t matriculated a traditional international signing beyond A-ball success since Paddy arrived in 2011. Micker Adolfo, who signed at the age (16) and bonus level ($1.6 million) typical of top talent, still reflects the White Sox’ best shot at glory six grueling seasons later.
It’s here where I wonder about what will be the most damaging aspect of the Fernando Tatis Jr. trade. Obviously the White Sox dealt away a future star they could sorely use for James Shields before he played a professional game, and that sucks. But more than the immediate MLB production and projectability they lack, I wonder what the White Sox’ attitude toward international development would look like if they had a Tatis showing all the benefits of doing it right. I wonder how international prospects would view the White Sox if they had anybody who used the Sox system to springboard into stardom.
Maybe Adolfo will be that guy. Maybe Lenyn Sosa’s slow-but-steady progress in Kannapolis at age 19 will result in a dynamic 2020 at Winston-Salem. Maybe Jose Rodriguez will perform well enough for a full-season affiliate for everybody to learn who he is and how they got them. Dollar amounts don’t always tell the whole story, but when Robert’s $26 million bonus is the only expenditure yielding returns, maybe the White Sox are the proverbial poor man who always pays twice, only now they’re less willing to pay at all, at least until an international draft arrives to complete the bending of the amateur market to the White Sox’ will.
If you’re looking for silver lining, the disregard of international money removes one obstacle from signing top-tier free agent talent. Any free agent who rejects a qualifying offer and signs for more than $50 million requires the signing team’s second-highest draft pick and $500,000 of international money. The Nova trade shows that they’ll hand over the $500,000 themselves, so that shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing Gerrit Cole or whoever else clears that bar.
That part just requires faith in the White Sox setting a market. They were in a perfect position to do so last offseason, but they spent the whole winter asking to be outbid, and their wish was eventually granted. In response, Rick Hahn gave his the-haters-said-we-would-never speech a one-year extension. The disappointing finishes for the Padres and Phillies reduced the heat, but now it’s back on.
The lengthy timetable for international prospect realization makes it easy to write off in an isolated year, but it’s a big-picture issue. The White Sox’ pre-rebuild farm rankings show how hard it is for a farm system to produce talent on a reliable basis when it abstains from meaningful international investment. If they’re trying to build a pipeline with one hand tied behind their back while handcuffing themselves in free agency, the math says they’re going to be short of hands when all of them are supposed to be on the deck.