Last night, MLB Network's Ken Rosenthal did one of the most exciting things Ken Rosenthal can do: He filled up an entire fanbase with hope. For The Athletic (subscription required), Rosenthal threw some kindling on the lightly simmering Bryce Harper sweepstakes fire by writing, "The White Sox have the resources to sign Bryce Harper. Now, will they break character and go for it?"
For a team that lost 100 games last season and hasn't made the playoffs since the year their most famous fan was elected President, this is the sort of item that makes ones ears prick upward.
Rosenthal isn't entirely sold, arguing that while the White Sox have the payroll flexibility to go after Harper, such a move would be out of character for a franchise that has never handed out a contract exceeding $100 million. But it is potentially a perfect fit, and not just because a player of Harper's quality is a perfect fit for any team. If you're the White Sox, you've got to be looking around at the rest of the American League Central and thinking, "If not us, who? If not now, when?" If you were to make a bet on one team over the next five years in this division ... wouldn't it have to be the White Sox?
After all, look at the rest of the division:
Kansas City. The Royals lost more games than the White Sox did last year, are in the bottom half of most prospect ranking lists and are clearly taking long-term view on getting back to contention. You don't have to worry about the Royals for a while.
Detroit. In his baseball newsletter this week, writer Joe Sheehan argued that the Tigers, by September, "could be a year closer to being relevant." In other words, there is still some work to do.
Minnesota. The Twins took a huge step back after their Wild Card season and are still assessing what, in fact, they are right now. Steamer projections have them as a .500 team, and they dropped a lot of payroll from last year's roster. Still, there hasn't been much of a sense they're going to spend big this year, and some of their prospects have not panned out to be nearly what they'd hoped.
Cleveland. Clearly still the favorite, but the fact that the Indians are talking about trading Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer -- two of the best pitchers in baseball -- speaks to their current state of flux. They seem likely to take a step back, and it's not like they were particularly dominant last year.
Meanwhile, the White Sox have the No. 3 Minor League system in baseball according to MLB Pipeline, and it's not all stashed down in the lower levels, either. Eloy Jimenez should be called up not long into 2019, and '20 -- if not earlier -- should bring Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, Blake Rutherford, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning, who are all on the Top 100 Prospects list. (Michael Kopech should be recovered from Tommy John surgery by then as well.) The window is just about to crack open for the White Sox: They could own this division in two years.
So why not try to start now? Maybe you can't catch the Indians next year -- though we'll see what comes of Cleveland's offseason -- but you can at the very least take a big step forward and signal what you've got coming: Let your fans know that the days of 100-loss seasons are in your past. If that sounds familiar, that's what those uptown Cubs did, alerting the baseball world that they were coming, and coming fast, by signing Jonathan Lester before the 2015 season. They won 24 more games in '15 than they did in '14. And in 2016, they … well, you know what happened in 2016. A 24-game improvement for the White Sox would make them an 86-win team in '19. Is that an impossible dream? Let's take a look.
Here's who the White Sox have if they don't sign Harper (or Manny Machado, to whom they've also been attached):
Tim Anderson, SS
Yoan Moncada, 2B
Eloy Jimenez, LF (by May, you'd think)
Jose Abreu, 1B
Daniel Palka, DH
Yolmer Sanchez, 3B
Welington Castillo, C
Nicky Delmonico or Leury Garcia, RF
Adam Engel, CF
Carlos Rodon, SP
Ivan Nova, SP
Reynaldo Lopez, SP
Lucas Giolito, SP
Manny Banuelos, SP
Well, that doesn't look like a playoff team, not yet. But with Robert, Madrigal and Rutherford coming, not to mention catcher Zach Collins, the holes get filled quickly in 2020, and that's not even mentioning the rotation. If you added a top-tier superstar to the team, you've got a solid foundation even before all those guys come. Imagine Machado in the middle of that lineup, or Harper replacing whatever that is in right field. That's an above .500 team. That might even be an 86-win team. And that's before the kids arrive. Imagine all those prospects surrounding a Machado or Harper. The White Sox will be good without either of them. But imagine what they'd be like with them.
The Indians probably aren't going to drop to 86 wins in 2019. But considering the state of the Tigers, Royals and Twins, there are definite wins on the table to be had by the White Sox. Nova is a helpful rotation piece, and tellingly, he's a free agent at the end of the season. This is a team built for the future, but Nova is a piece who only helps right now. It's at least a cursory glance at the idea that the White Sox might want to get the ball rolling a little bit. Clearly, with the AL Central in its current state, there is a decided lack of resistance.
No one can predict what's going to happen in the future. We could all be playing baseball in rocket packs in a few years, you never know. But the White Sox find themselves in an extremely similar situation to those Cubs just a few years ago -- oodles of talent ready to take over, a fanbase desperate for a winner and all sorts of money available to spend. And considering how much better the NL Central was in 2015 -- three teams in that division made the playoffs that year, remember -- than the AL Central will be in '19, this seems precisely the time to pounce. Every team needs that kick start, that sign to their fans and the rest of baseball that they have arrived. That time for the White Sox seems to be right now.