Good news: The White Sox broke new ground in a free agent pursuit.
Bad news: It can’t even register as a moral victory.
For the first time in documented history, the White Sox reportedly finished with the highest bid for a free agent who landed a nine-figure contract … only it wasn’t good enough to actually land the player. Zack Wheeler is instead heading to the Phillies on a deal worth $118 million over five years.
Multiple sources had the White Sox offering Wheeler more money than the Phillies. Bob Nightengale and Ken Rosenthal both said so, and Daryl Van Schouwen became the first reporter to say it was guaranteed, and not some incentive-laden structure. Wheeler instead opted for Philadelphia, which is close to where his fiancee’s family lives.
The White Sox are used to rejection, but these circumstances have no precedent. Sure, the Sox had offered a nine-figure contract other times, like when they were outbid for Masahiro Tanaka and Manny Machado, but neither offer could be taken with utmost earnestness.
With Tanaka, the White Sox weren’t going be more appealing than the Yankees either financially or otherwise, and true to form, the Yankees blew away the field. The White Sox were just happy to advertise their first rebuild. With Machado, the White Sox didn’t want to win the bidding. Otherwise, they just would’ve issued the expected 10-year, $300 million contract themselves in December. They used it as an opportunity to advertise their second rebuild, but it rang far hollower.
This time around, the White Sox behaved like a big-boy team start to finish, especially since the winning bid was far higher than the projections. FanGraphs crowdsourced it at four years and $72 million. MLB Trade Rumors suggested five years and $90 million as a decent reference point. Wheeler ended up at $118 million, and that wasn’t even the reason the Sox didn’t receive his services.
My guess is that Wheeler indeed wanted to stay in that particular tri-state area, and his camp bandied about the White Sox’s interest to drive up the Phillies’ number. Could the White Sox have offered $125 million or $130 million? Maybe. Would that have been a good idea? Maybe. But I’m guessing at some point in the negotiations the losing party has to take the hint.
Perhaps the White Sox should have factored in Wheeler’s preferences, but I’m guessing they did. This wasn’t like Machado, where the deal ended up at the nice round numbers that were predicted out of conversational convenience, and the White Sox just chickened out. Perhaps they projected Wheeler for four years and $80 million, thought five and $110 million was a reasonable top end, and then continued pushing until nobody topped them. How much further are they supposed to go before they consider other options? How much more does Wheeler need to seek when he has a preferred landing spot paying him what he’s worth and then some?
When it comes to the things we can know from this distance, I’m fine with how the White Sox conducted themselves, because they appeared to have pursued a top target without cutting corners and calling it shabby chic. If you told me in October that the White Sox were going to land Yasmani Grandal and offer $120 million to Zack Wheeler, I’d be fairly shocked. That the White Sox failed to get a free agent to accept their nine-figure offer is a cold glass of water to the face, but it still seems that the White Sox are trying to do what’s needed this winter. (Sidling up to the Yankees and Angels for Gerrit Cole would go further, y’know.)
The Sox suffered some embarrassment in the process, but they ran the risk of this kind of rejection with by running their postseason drought to 11 years with three seasons of tanking. They have yet to build an intrinsic advantage as a destination, and until they do, competing for desirable free agents requires a lot of money and a little bit of prayer. Perhaps they should have taken advantage of softer markets when they had the chance, but they didn’t, so now they have to figure out another plan.
I’m guessing “$120 million to Zack Wheeler” isn’t the only thing on their big board, so I’m taking this failure as an indicator that the White Sox have the appetite to add. That’s new, and hopefully the Sox will have something to show for it before the novelty wears off.