Prior to Wednesday afternoon, it hadn’t exactly been a banner offseason for either of Chicago’s MLB franchises from a PR perspective. Though the Cubs and White Sox headed into their 2019 planning with decidedly different outlooks on competitiveness and total payroll, both were expected to compete for the biggest free agents on the market. And both eventually failed to land either, but for different reasons.
While the Cubs got way out in front of their “inability” to afford a big free agent, something Cubs Insider was the first to mention back on October 31, the Sox maintained their pursuit up until the bitter end. Or at least that was what they maintained publicly. As perplexed as they acted when Manny Machado took more guaranteed money to sign with San Diego, execs on the South Side had been preparing for the eventuality that they wouldn’t be adding a superstar.
When White Sox SVP of Sales and Marketing Brooks Boyer joined Mully & Haugh on 670 The Score in February, he talked about how just being in the hunt for Machado and Bryce Harper would get fans excited. Boyer seemed resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t be getting the chance to promote either player as a Good Guy, touting a silver lining that went something like, “At least people are talking about the White Sox.”
And they were…until both big players went elsewhere and the reality of the situation settled in for fans who’d had little else to get excited about over the past few seasons. To top it off, the Sox ended up making the long-anticipated move to option slugging phenom Eloy Jiménez to Triple-A. Even though it had been widely assumed that the former Cubs prospect would be held back to manipulate his service time and give the Sox an additional year of control, confirmation of the delay offered no sustenance for hungry fans.
That all changed Wednesday when it was announced that the Sox had agreed with Jiménez on a six-year, $43 million extension that shattered the record for the most guaranteed money for a player with zero MLB service time. Scott Kingery‘s $24 million deal with the Phillies last March had been the previous record. Heck, the biggest deal for a player with less than one year of service had been Paul DeJong‘s $26 million with the Cardinals.
The White Sox have two $16 million club options at the end of the deal that could push it to eight total years at $75 million. Jiménez will also reportedly receive a $2.5 million bonus for winning the MVP, though it’s unclear whether that’s a one-time thing or a per-award deal. Either way, the Sox will be happy to pay it out if he achieves that kind of success.
As much as this might seem like a big gamble for a team that’s traditionally been unwilling to spend big, it could end up netting Jerry Reinsdorf some big savings. Though it’s unrealistic to assume Jiménez follows Kris Bryant‘s trajectory, let’s do that here for the sake of context. Sans extension, Jiménez would have been under seven years of club control with four arbitration raises as a likely Super Two player, just as Bryant is.
Barring an extension — which Bryant would like to sign, but we’ll get to that in a bit — the Cubs star should end up earning around $65-70 million under the terms of his rookie deal. And that figure is actually suppressed somewhat by his injury-plagued 2018 season. Then you figure maybe $30 million for an eighth year, which would be the first of his free agency/extension.
We could also use Nolan Arenado as an example. He will earn around $61.5 million through his first seven seasons, then another $35 million under the terms of his recent extension. In either case, you’re looking at roughly $95-100 million to keep a superstar player in your organization for the first eight years of his career. Elite-level performance is by no means a guarantee, but the Sox would be overjoyed if Jiménez comes close to what either Bryant or Arenado has accomplished.
If the young Dominican slugger performs well enough to trigger that MVP kicker, the extension is a steal at less than $10 million AAV. But say he doesn’t and the Sox don’t even want to pick up either of their options. Did they just waste $43 million on a bust? I guess you could look at it that way, though the economics of baseball are such that it should still work out for them.
Prior to the Jiménez deal, the Sox were at a total competitive balance tax payroll of $105 million for 2019 and had less than $31 million committed for 2020. Even with monster arb raises for their other eligible players, they’ve got an obscene amount of room to work with. Nothing short of an abysmal failure to produce could turn Jiménez into an albatross.
At a mere $7.17 million AAV over the first six years of his deal, he’s only got to produce around 0.9 WAR per season to justify the cost. Anything above that results in surplus value to the Sox, which allows them that much more flexibility to pursue other players to fill out the roster moving forward. And with several big stars agreeing to new deals lately, there’s no better time to go ahead and spend internally.
More than just what it means to the roster and how competitive they’ll be this season and beyond, extending Jiménez is a stroke of PR brilliance for the White Sox. Or it will be as long as they actually add him to the Opening Day roster, which they’d damn well better. This is a goodwill gesture to the fans who’ve been pining for more and felt cheated by the club’s failed pursuits earlier in the winter. The extra gate alone should make up for the added contract cost.
That brings us back around to the Cubs, who could use a little good PR of their own. Beyond crying poor and bowing out of any impact moves (unless you buy that Daniel Descalso is really a better hitter than Giancarlo Stanton), ownership engaged in public political battles with local alderman Tom Tunney and had to address the release of some unsavory emails from Joe Ricketts. Add in the ongoing situation with Addison Russell and fallout from last season’s disappointment and you’ve got a pot of rancid gruel not even Oliver Twist would ask for more of.
No one’s suggesting the Cubs should try to extend one or more of their young stars just to paper over the water stains that have appeared on their walls over the last few months. The expectations are much higher at the Addison Street Red Line stop than they are at 35th Street, so simply living up to them will go a long way toward erasing the unease of the offseason. Living down to anemic PECOTA projections, on the other hand, is something no number of extensions would mitigate.
The Cubs have said over and over that they don’t have money left in the baseball budget, which apparently applies as much to their ability to offer extensions as it does their potential pursuit of Craig Kimbrel. Bryant has gone on record more than once in recent weeks to say that he’s open to an extension if the Cubs come to him with a fair offer, though he added recently that the team hasn’t approached any players this spring.
Maybe next year, once the Cubs know more about what kind of additional revenue Marquee Network can be expected to generate. We’ve heard earnings estimates from Sinclair, the Cubs’ partner in the venture, and the team’s business operations department has no doubt made their own projections, but those numbers almost certainly fell well short of where they’d been a couple years ago. Hence the inability to stretch the budget much beyond its current level, which is admittedly pretty high already.
Nothing the Sox have done or are doing should directly spur the Cubs to action. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the way a team that had previously pissed off its fans with inaction and/or a lack of transparency — in the Cubs’ case, there’s also been a fair bit of condescension — made a big move to generate some much-needed goodwill. It’s too late for the Cubs to go back and keep Eloy Jimenez in the fold, but they can still get something done with the young players they’ve got on their current roster.