If the early signing of Yasmani Grandal gave you a perhaps unrealistic amount of naive faith that things might be changing for the White Sox when it comes to the free agent market, Zack Wheeler signing in Philadelphia may have brought you crashing back to earth. If you feel as though you match this description, you are not alone. Despite my very best efforts, even after the Grandal signing, to not get my hopes and expectations up for the White Sox this offseason to avoid crushing disappointment like I felt in late February after the Machado ordeal, I started to truly believe the Sox were going to sign Wheeler, both because of my own naiveté and because of some info I was being relayed by folks I know with more connections than I have (which is zero).
The irony of my disappointment with the Sox losing on Wheeler is that when I saw the contract he signed he signed in Philly was for 5 years and $118-million, my initial reaction was that I was very fine with the White Sox not giving him that kind of money. Then it came out that the Sox actually offered Wheeler more than what he took in the city of Brotherly Love, and he took John Middleton‘s money over Jerry Reinsdorf’s because his fiance is from Jersey. Poor guy.
We can argue until we are blue in the face about what Wheeler’s value is, and after two strong seasons in a row and being worth 4+ fWAR in each of those years before hitting FA at 29, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t worth the money he got, but the injury history and lack of a track record before these last two years was reason enough to be a little gunshy with him. I’m not personally convinced he is a $24M pitcher, let alone the $25M guy the Sox apparently valued him at (Bob Nightengale, who is Kenny William’s media mouthpiece, reported the Sox offered Wheeler 5/$125M), but my opinion is worth jack and shit in this regard. For what it’s worth, FanGraph’s “player value” projections have Wheelers 2018 and 2019 being worth more than $30M each, but I also don’t trust that teams use the same kind of $/WAR valuations that FG does across the board.
In the end, it’s hard to be mad at the White Sox for not getting Wheeler here. They offered him a full million-plus more per year than he accepted, it just wasn’t enough to convince him to pick money over the happiness of his fiance. But based on some of the reports that came out after the fact, like the one from Jon Heyman below, I am a bit suspicious as to whether or not the Sox ever had a real chance.
Twins were among several teams to go big on Wheeler — 5 years — but he told them he preferred to stay on the East Coast
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 4, 2019
Obviously we can’t know for sure if my suspicion is true, and I can only go off aforementioned reports and “info” I’ve gotten, but it feels to me like the Sox got used here. For weeks, most of the reports regarding Wheeler tied him to the Sox, Twins, Reds, and/or Rangers, none of which are east coast teams. Then all of the sudden Wednesday morning the Phillies are involved, then not long after that the Rangers aren’t, and then a few hours later Wheeler signs in Philly and we’re told it’s because of his girl and because he preferred east coast. If the Sox offer was indeed 5-years for $125M and he ended up taking less in Philly because it’s closer to where he wanted to be, that feels an awful lot like the Sox were just an ends to a means. “Look, Phillies, I want to come there, but I can get a lot more money in Chicago.” Acceptable offer from preferred location roles in, job done.
Basically what I am getting at here is that, despite White Sox Twitter’s best efforts to turn the White Sox offering a free agent the most money he was offered into a bad thing, because some of these motherfuckers are miserable just to be miserable, the Sox did all they could. Wheeler just viewed them as a backup option if more preferred destinations didn’t get involved with good offers.
Now, if you want to place blame on the Sox for anything in this situation, it has to be that last part. Being a backup option for top tier free agents is clearly not ideal, but it’s a bed the Sox put themselves in. While it’s tough to accept as a fan, the Sox clearly have something of a bad reputation in the market place, and it’s not as if they haven’t earned it. Even with signing Yasmani Grandal to a franchise record contract, they still have a lot more to prove both the free agents and their own fans when it comes to playing in this market, because that record deal was still just $73M, which is relatively routine in today’s MLB. Now sure, the Sox offered Machado $250M and Wheeler $125M, but until those offers go from hypothetical to actual pen on paper, there isn’t a great deal of solace that the team can expect folks to take in them, and it’d be a bit naive of the Sox to assume that players should want to come here just because they’re offering fair market money.
That reputation they have as a cheap organization, mostly among fans, is evident every time they miss on a free agent they clearly wanted. As the reports came out about the Sox offer to Wheeler being more, it was met with various reactions of “of course they’re saying this” or my personal favorite “no one works harder to tell you they just missed than the Sox.” And while being speculative of those reports and/or mocking the Sox for working so hard to to get said reports out there quickly is very fair, I again find it hard to blame the Sox for doing so. If they don’t work to make sure that people know they actually made a fair offer to Wheeler, and one that was actually more than he took, then the hive-mind, assume-the-worst reaction from baseball fans and Sox fans especially would run rampant. Until they shake the reputation, they do admittedly have to run this kind of damage control.
The baseball world writ large seems to recognize that the Sox have the a young core in place that could be the makings of something special. But in the same sense as the contract offers only being significant once they come to fruition, this solid young core may have to deliver a bit more in terms of overall team results before it can serve as the kind of team that other players look at and want to be a part of for reasons other than money. Yasmani Grandal saying he likes what the team is building toward when he signed may help that out a bit, but it clearly has not accomplished it to any extent Rick Hahn and company would hope for. Until the Sox can find someone to take their 9-digit contract offers and/or put an actually competitive team on the field when they mean to, their earned reputation will proceed them.