Baseball

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.

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.

Baseball

Earlier today, our comrade and Sox correspondent AJ wrote up why and how the Pale Hose should be interested in Zack Wheeler to boost the Sox rotation that needs it. But here’s the thing: no one cares about the White Sox, and really everyone’s energy should be put into putting the Cubs back among the elite of MLB (THE! ELITE! THE THE ELITE!). And I don’t mean just us here. I mean everyone in the world. Do you really want to live through another season of the Cardinals boasting about their geniusness when they were essentially a mediocre team that had everything fall into its lap? Of course you don’t. No one wants that. And the only person who minds the Twins winning the AL Central again is Fifth Feather, and he’s a miserable little man living in his hovel and laughing at all of you constantly. He doesn’t like you, never will, so why should you do anything for him? Exactly.

So let’s get Wheeler to the Northside instead.

Why A Spoon, Sire?: AJ laid it out, but basically Wheeler is the youngest available and realistic starting pitcher on the market. Stephen Strasburg is not walking through that door (and the Cubs might and probably should be gunshy about signing any pitcher out of a World Series team who has gone longer on innings than ever before, given how their Brandon Morrow and first year of Darvish experiences worked out). Gerrit Cole is not walking through that door. I’d love it if one of them did, but it’s not going to happen. Funny how Cubs and Sox fans are dealing with the same thing in that sense, no?

That doesn’t mean Wheeler is exactly young, as he’ll turn 30 in May of next season. But the rest of the Cubs rotation is old, as so will Kyle Hendricks and Lester, Q, and Darvish are over 30. Adbert Alzolay won’t be ready for the rotation this year, if ever, and the Cubs just have to get younger there.

While Wheeler doesn’t have the strikeout numbers of some, he’s been pretty solid in that category. And while the injuries are a worry, more encouragingly is that Wheeler’s stuff seems to be getting better the farther he’s gotten away from his TJ surgery. Look at his four-seam velocity:

Or the vertical drop on his curve:

Or the sweep of his slider:

So that’s all very encouraging. If you want to go by spin-rate, both his curve and slider have picked up spin-rate from 2018 to this past one. So while he did miss two and a half seasons thanks to injury, that’s also wear and tear he hasn’t piled up. So the fear of his stuff drying up in his early 30s isn’t as high as it might be, and he appears to be on the upswing you might have expected at ages 26-28, had he a clean bill of health.

Ein minuten bitte, vous einen kleinen problemo avec de religione (he was from everywhere): As AJ said, the injury worries are still there. But he made 29 starts in 2018 and 31 this year, and really just being around 30 is basically what you expect of any starters but the top echelon these days. With the presence of Chatwood and hopefully Azolay in the pen and both being stretched out enough to go multiple innings now, the Cubs can absorb a pitcher or two that don’t make the post 33-35 times per year. And Alec Mills and Colin Rea are lying around as well.

There’s another slight worry, and that’s his ERA-. That’s league-adjusted, and it didn’t love Wheeler last year, giving him only a 98 where 100 is average. It was much more kind to him in ’18 with an 87. The reason probably is that Wheeler gave up a lot more hits in 2019, 46 more in just 13 more innings. Some of that is pure luck, as Wheeler’s BABIP rose to .311 from .279. But the latter number is more the outlier as Wheeler has a career BABIP of .300 on the nose. Wheeler’s hard-contact rate against and his exti velocity both saw a tick up this year. But as we keep saying, whose didn’t? Among starting pitchers, Wheeler was in the top-10 in average exit-velocity against. And as I’ve pointed out, the stuff seems to be getting better.

Little Silver? Little Gold?: MLBTR has Wheeler getting $20M for five years from the Phillies, because the Arrieta signing has gone so well, Nick Pivetta turned into Grover, Aaron Nola really struggled in the season’s last month. You don’t think of Wheeler as a $20M pitcher, but given his last two years that’s probably what he is. If you go by the last two years cumulative, he’s got the same WAR as Patrick Corbin had. He’s the same age as Nathan Eovaldi was last year, with some of the same injury concerns, and Eovaldi got $17M a year to sit on a trainer’s table in Boston.

MLBTR lists half the league as possible suitors, because again, why wouldn’t you want a plus pitcher on your team. That’s only going to drive his price up. But still, he’s going to get a salary a class below Strasburg and Cole. And the Cubs will have some $30M coming off the books when Lester’s and Quintana’s deals are up. Because of the bargain they’ll still be getting Hendricks at, they can splurge a bit in another spot.

And the Cubs could use another pitcher with really good stuff. That’s the kind of thing that matters in October, and this is still a team that should keep in mind how to negotiate 11 bonus wins after the 162.

Fetch. And AJ smells anyway. You don’t want to play in front of him, Zack.

 

Baseball

The White Sox need another starter, perhaps even two. The immanent return of Michael Kopech should satisfy one of those needs, but successfully returning from Tommy John surgery is no sure thing. In addition to that, you can almost guarantee that his innings are going to have a cap on them, as the most he’s ever thrown in a season is the 140 he tossed before his elbow went “TWANG” in 2018.

So Kopech fills in for Ivan Nova, but that still leaves the Black Hole of Sadness that is the Sox 5th starter. Carlos Rodon won’t be back until August at the earliest, and he faces the same questions Kopech does. Reynaldo Lopez hasn’t cemented his spot in the rotation of The Future™ as of yet, either. Besides, you can never have too much starting pitching (or so I’m told).

So that brings us to the next person on the White Sox offseason shopping list. He’s a front line starter who comes with some risk attached but (other than Gerrit Cole) is the youngest available free agent starter on the market. I of course speak of Zack Wheeler.

Why Him?: First off like I said above, he’s the youngest starting pitcher available on the market this winter that the Sox would realistically (as much as I want Cole or Strasburg) pursue. He has that first round draft pick pedigree that Rick Hahn loves so much (though to be fair that’s a hangup of most GMs) and would immediately make the Sox starting rotation a thing to be feared.

He’s had an ERA of under 4.00 every year but 2017 (when he missed an extended period of time due to various maladies), has a 22.8% K rate, an 8.5% BB rate and has been a 4+ WAR player the last two seasons.

His fastball sits in the upper 90s with movement, and he has a nasty slider that he throws in the low 90s for his strikeout pitch. He also has a plus curveball and an average changeup that he doesn’t throw a whole lot in the zone. He also has a 44% ground ball ratio compared to a 32.5% fly ball that would play well at The Down Arrow.

Him lining up with Giolito, Kopech, Cease and Lopez gives you four starters that will rack up strikeouts at a hilarious pace, and would hopefully take some of the onus off the bullpen to have to eat up so many innings. Plus with him just entering his age 30 season, the threat of a downturn in velocity seems pretty low.

Why Not Him?: First and foremost, injuries. Wheeler has had issues staying healthy, as he’s never broken 200 innings in his career. In 2015 he had Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL which cost him all of the 2016 season. In 2017 he got tendinitis in his bicep which cost him some time on the IL, then after than he had a stress reaction in his right arm (a stress reaction is basically a broken bone that hasn’t totally broken. I had to google it.) which resulted in him being shut down in August. He also missed time this past season with a shoulder impingement.

In addition to the injury risk, he’s another righty which with Carlos Rodon out would make the current starting rotation entirely right handed. In and of itself this is not a terrible thing, as if the stuff is good then the results will be good. Still it’s not the worst thing in the world to be able to vary the handedness of your starters from time to time. Especially when the Indians and their bevy of left handed mashers is in your division.

He was also issued a qualifying offer from the Mets this last week, so any attempt to sign him after he turns it down results in the Sox sending a 2nd round draft pick to NY. Thus far, Rick Hahn has been loath to part with ANY of his draft picks…but the time for the Sox hoarding them is well past.

How Much Is This Free Resort Weekend?: FanGraphs has Wheeler looking at a four-year deal with about an $18 million AAV running at a grand total of just under $80 million total. This contract would blow past the $68 million the Sox gave Jose Abreu as the highest ever issued by the team (pathetic). Being that the Sox are most likely going to have to overpay due to the fact that the South Side isn’t currently the mecca for free agents the Northside is, I would think four years and $85 million might be enough to get Wheeler in a Sox jersey.

If the free agent market is slow enough, his injury history could potentially suppress that number even further. Either way, the $85 million would probably be the cap that Rick Hahn would set for himself, especially with all the other needs (DH, RF, 2B potentially) to be filled out in addition to starting pitching. I’m a big fan of Wheeler, and I think he’d fit in nicely here. It’s a bit of a stretch, as I see the Yankees becoming a problem if they miss out on Gerrit Cole and I don’t see Hahn outbidding them, like, ever. If the dominoes fall the right way however, Wheeler could be another pillar of an awesome pitching staff.