While I held some optimism that Rick Hahn’s initial description of the White Sox’s 2023 Opening Day payroll might exceed $190ish million under the right circumstances, James Fegan is here to crush my hopes (emphasis mine).
Last season’s payroll, estimated at $196 million by FanGraphs, was not a top-five figure in MLB, but it was easily a franchise record and indicative that the franchise feels its time to compete is now. But that figure also reflects some level of expenses accrued over the season, with a team source indicating that an Opening Day figure in the territory of $180 million is more what the club has in mind when it comes to staying in the same vicinity as last year over this offseason. The current FanGraphs estimate for the 2023 Sox payroll is $173 million, and while that could be knocked down a few million by some non-tenders and is an imperfect replication of the team’s internal numbers, it would make top-level free agent signings unlikely and be a consideration in what sorts of trades they can execute. If there’s one thing the White Sox are not touting about themselves this offseason, it’s their payroll flexibility.
To me, the tension between what the White Sox should spend and what they will spend rests on their attitude toward Yasmani Grandal, because it reminds me of a sequence of events involving a far more regrettable free-agent outlay.
Back in 2015, the White Sox signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal. I was lukewarm on LaRoche’s potential impact, but I could see how he might address some needs, and unlike the four-year deal to Adam Dunn, the White Sox could easily spend past it if LaRoche flopped just the same.
Except that’s not how the White Sox operate. LaRoche flopped and the White Sox didn’t spend past it. Instead, they rolled into spring training with reduced privileges for LaRoche and even cheaper end-of-the-line veterans, a combination that resulted in the first of two embarrassing clubhouse explosions. Then LaRoche retired in spring training, which meant that the White Sox could’ve accommodated another considerable salary after all. But hey, at least that gave them the resources to jump the market for … James Shields.
So let’s apply this to Grandal. When the White Sox signed him back in November 2019, everybody had to brace for a gross ending, because it was a four-year deal to a 31-year-old catcher. Grandal theoretically addressed some huge White Sox shortcomings up front with enough impact to make such inefficiency worthwhile.
Three of the four years have met expectations. A standard curve might look something like:
- Year 1: Worth it
- Year 2: Worth it
- Year 3: Meh
- Year 4: Eww
The “eww” arrived a year early due to a second knee surgery, but while the severity of his plunge caught everybody by surprise, the White Sox should’ve been prepared for whatever happens from this point starting three Thanksgivings ago.
“(Catcher) was one area where we underperformed last year, doesn’t mean we feel we necessarily have to go out and address that,” Hahn said. “(Grandal) had his struggles and physical issues in ’22, and it’s important not to lose sight how productive he was the year before and having Yasmani be right, the 2021 version much less the guy he was much of leading up that, that guy is a huge asset to the ’23 White Sox. Fortunately, we’ll have a full offseason to get him healthy. His work with Pedro, we think will be beneficial, and knock on wood we’ll get him back to the level he was at in ’21.”
Now, Hahn might’ve said something similar even if the White Sox had a rich history of aggressively pursuing next solutions. Fans would love hearing a blunt assessment of how much Grandal’s 2022 season sucked, but it wouldn’t help in terms of player relations or leverage.
The problem is that “knock on wood” has been the prevailing White Sox strategy in such situations, even when decline should’ve been treated as a preexisting condition. Hahn’s last rebuild also shifted from free agency to trades earlier than it should have, which resulted in two shortstops reaching All-Star status elsewhere while the White Sox received two starting pitchers who turned in their worst seasons.
This seems like the last year to spend big, because if Brandon Nimmo or Carlos Rodón or whoever can’t get the White Sox out of their rut, dollars start melting off the payroll starting the following winter regardless. Maybe this winter’s big acquisition sticks out like a sore thumb during the next retrenching like Shields on the 2018 payroll, but retaining the bulk of the prospect base would make for a smoother transition if such a transition is required.
Alas, as I’ve said many times before, Jerry Reinsdorf does not spend money to make money, and Rick Hahn is terrible at making Reinsdorf money to spend, so any loosening of the pursestrings looks more like an involuntary spasm than a sustained strategy. We might be saying the same thing about the unusually thorough process to hire Pedro Grifol if the Sox stick to their old strategies of supplementing the talent.
There, the analog is 2012, when the White Sox reduced their payroll by $30 million with the hopes that Robin Ventura would be able to address the dysfunctional leadership structure at the end of the Ozzie Guillen era. It almost worked, at least until the roster’s depth issues emerged and Ventura’s inexperience came back to bite the Sox in September. Imagine what it might’ve looked like had the White Sox paired sizable spending and a manager with the team’s best intentions at heart, because the White Sox might not be capable of that.