Sox and Phillies in showdown for top free agent

 nbcsports.com  12/04/2019 21:20:32 

The bidding war for Zack Wheeler is seemingly intensifying, with a winner potentially emerging any time now.

Will the White Sox claim victory?

A flurry of details regarding the pursuit of Wheeler hit the internet Tuesday and spilled into Wednesday, too, with the White Sox described in all of them as one of the teams most firmly in the chase. But the money it will take to acquire Wheeler was the biggest topic of discussion, with multiple reports saying hell command a five-year deal worth more than $100 million.

USA Todays Bob Nightengale reported the White Sox are willing to pay such a price, which lines up with the teams plans for an aggressive offseason and to spend big to add impact talent to the rebuilding effort.

Tuesday's reports featured a whole host of teams also chasing Wheeler's services  including the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays  but Wednesday brought a new team into the fray: the Philadelphia Phillies. White Sox fans may remember the Phightin' Phills from such offseasons as 2018-19, when they were long reported to be the White Sox primary foes in the Manny Machado sweepstakes. Of course, neither ended up with Machado, who took his talents to San Diego, but the Phillies did spend big bucks to land Bryce Harper.

ESPN's Buster Olney reported Wednesday that not only are the Phillies in on Wheeler, they're the highest bidders.

Things didn't quite work out how the Phillies hoped they would after their spending spree last winter that netted them such impact talents as Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. They finished fourth in the NL East and missed the postseason, while the second-place Washington Nationals, sans Harper, won the World Series. Already bringing in a new manager this offseason in Joe Girardi, the Phillies again seem intent on spending their way back to October, where they haven't been since 2011.

Things are changing at a rapid pace, and reports that Wheeler could pick his destination before the Winter Meetings begin Monday in San Diego keep piling up. Reportedly, you can cross the Rangers off the list, as Wheeler has done, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

But the Phillies might end up being the biggest threat to the White Sox not getting their man. Wheeler could stay in the NL East, the same division he's pitched in his entire big league career. According to Grant, Wheeler's choosing between the White Sox and Phillies, with the Reds "perhaps" in the mix, as well.

Hope everyone's wearing their seatbelts because the hot stove is moving at dangerously fast speeds.

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Baseball free agency is heating up as the weather gets colder. This week we are breaking down 10 potential free-agent targets for the White Sox ahead of the Winter Meetings.

Madison Bumgarner, LH SP, Giants

Age: 30

2019 salary: $12,000,000

2019 stats: 207.2 IP, 3.90 ERA, 203 K, 43 BB, 191 hits (30 HR)

What Bumgarner would bring to the White Sox

Perhaps the most accomplished playoff pitcher of all time. In Bumgarner's 11 years with the Giants he was a massive part of their even year success this decade. He won three rings with the Giants (2010, 2012, 2014), including a World Series MVP in 2014. He did all that before his 26th birthday.

In his career, Bumgarner has a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 playoff innings with an 8-3 record. He has three playoff shutouts in 14 playoff starts. Oh, and he has a 0.25 ERA in the World Series in 36 innings. One run in 36 innings in the World Series.

All that playoff success is where Bumgarner made his name and he did so at such a young age (his MLB debut came just over a month after he turned 20) that it's easy to forget that he's still just 30 and should have plenty of years left.

How many 30-year-olds who appear to be locks for the Hall of Fame have ever been available in free agency? For all the hype Bryce Harper and Manny Machado had in free agency last year for being young, elite talents, neither had anywhere near the career accomplishments of Bumgarner.

The counterpoint to that is that Bumgarner has a lot of mileage on his arm. He has thrown 1948.1 innings combined in the regular season and playoffs. He has thrown at least 111 innings in each of the past 10 seasons with seven 200-inning seasons. Bumgarner was one of 15 pitchers to surpass 200 innings this past season.

His performance has slipped a bit in his past three years after posting ERAs under 3.00 from 2013-2016. Still, he has been an above average pitcher. Last year's 3.90 ERA was the lowest ERA+ of his career at 107, which still rates as above average.

Bumgarner would bring an experienced, solid pitcher to the staff. He likely wouldn't be a franchise-changer like Gerrit Cole could be wherever he goes, but Bumgarner is likely to be a dependable option. Plus, no team wants to go against him in the playoffs.

What it would take to get him

The Giants signed Bumgarner to a six-year deal worth $35.56 million early in the 2012 season. That bought out some of his arbitration years and early free agency years. The Giants picked up contract options each of the last two seasons for $12 million. This is the first time he's hitting free agency.

Given his track record and proven dependability, Bumgarner could get around $20 million per year over multiple years in a quickly escalating pitching market. That means the White Sox would have to give him a record-setting deal for the club.

Why it makes sense for the White Sox

Bumgarner isn't going to require the record-setting money that Cole and Stephen Strasburg are expecting to get. That means the White Sox should be able to be in on the negotiations.

The flip side is that there will be plenty of competition. Who doesn't want arguably the best postseason pitcher ever at age 30 who has been nothing but consistent in his career?

The White Sox haven't been mentioned much in rumors around Bumgarner, but he would add experience and reliability to the rotation.

Latest rumors

In the wake of Wheeler signing with Phillies and Hamels signing with Braves, Bumgarner market is clarifying. Per sources, White Sox and Twins among heaviest suitors there. Yankees involved to some degree.

— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) December 4, 2019

The Atlanta #Braves decided they weren't comfortable with free-agent starter Madison Bumgarner's pricetag likely exceeding $100 million, so they turned to Cole Hamels. Now, they would love to bring back third baseman Josh Donaldson.

— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 4, 2019

Zack Wheeler won't be joining the South Side starting staff, though not for lack of trying on behalf of the White Sox, who made a richer contract offer than the five-year deal Wheeler got from the Philadelphia Phillies.

But that effort alone won't plug the two holes in the White Sox rotation, and they'll need to go elsewhere to find the upgrades they need. Where?

Well, they can keep swimming in the same free-agent waters they hoped to pluck Wheeler out of, with a second tier of free-agent starters still out there populated by Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel. You might ask why we're just skipping over Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the perennial Cy Young types at the tippy top of the market, and that's a good question. But the White Sox haven't been linked anywhere near as strongly to either ace as they were to Wheeler, with MLB Network's Jon Heyman going as far as saying there's "no belief" the White Sox would pursue either guy. Though it's worth wondering whether Wheeler's decision to head to Philly makes the White Sox reconsider.

Anyway, we'll stick with those second-tier guys for now.

Bumgarner has long looked like exactly what this rotation needs, an accomplished pitcher who could serve as the Jon Lester for this Chicago rebuild. Bumgarner's a three-time World Series champ and might very well be the best pitcher in the history of the World Series, where he owns a career 0.25 ERA in five appearances. Even though he's already logged 11 big league seasons and has pitched in four different playoffs and has a combined 1,948.1 innings between the regular season and postseason, he's just 30 years old. The mileage on his left arm might make some wary, but after a couple of injury-shortened campaigns in 2017 and 2018, he made 34 starts for the San Francisco Giants last season. It's worth noting his 3.90 ERA in 2019 was the highest of his career, though it was also lower than Wheeler's 3.96 ERA.

In the wake of Wheeler picking the Phillies, the White Sox were already reported to be among the "heaviest suitors" for Bumgarner's services.

In the wake of Wheeler signing with Phillies and Hamels signing with Braves, Bumgarner market is clarifying. Per sources, White Sox and Twins among heaviest suitors there. Yankees involved to some degree.

— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) December 4, 2019

Ryu, meanwhile, had the lowest ERA among qualified starting pitchers in baseball last season, at 2.32, that dazzling number coming a season after he posted a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts. Durability has been Ryu's bugaboo. He missed the 2015 season, made just one start in 2016 and has averaged 22 starts in the three seasons since. But he's undoubtedly been excellent when he's been on the mound the last two seasons. Ryu is significantly older than Bumgarner; he'll turn 33 before Opening Day 2020.

Keuchel, who will turn 32 on New Year's Day, would also bring a winning history to the rotation. He's been through a rebuild and come out the other end a world champion with the Houston Astros. In 2015, he won the AL Cy Young Award. He hasn't been overwhelmingly consistent, following up the 2.48 ERA he posted during his Cy Young season with a 4.55 ERA in 2016. He had a 2.90 ERA the year the Astros won the World Series, but he's finished with 3.74 and 3.75 ERAs in the two seasons since. Keuchel was a victim of the draft-pick compensation triggered when he rejected the Astros' qualifying offer an offseason ago, remaining unsigned until June. The Atlanta Braves scooped him up then, and he did well down the stretch for the NL East champs, with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts.

It should be noted the White Sox have other holes on the roster that need addressing this offseason, even if none might be more pressing than starting pitching. But should they decide to spend big on, for example, a right fielder (such as Nicholas Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna), perhaps the trade market is a more realistic possibility for finding that starting pitching.

It's also important to note that the White Sox are searching for two starting pitchers, meaning the second might be found in a lower tier than the one housing the three names discussed to this point. Past those three, the market thins significantly, with Michael Pineda and Tanner Roark potentially being the next most attractive options.

Options exist, yes. But they aren't exactly bountiful, especially if one of the two starters is desired to be a top-of-the-rotation type that can pair with Lucas Giolito to create a formidable 1-2 punch. If the White Sox are forced into shallower waters in their search for starting pitching this winter, that would put some more pressure on Michael Kopech, coming off Tommy John surgery, and Dylan Cease, coming off a 5.79 ERA in his first taste of the majors in 2019, to quickly blossom into top-of-the-rotation types.

There's a lot of offseason left, of course, and the White Sox are expected to continue their aggressive search for upgrades. As Wednesday showed, however, being aggressive and being willing to spend don't always equal success.

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