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Sox won't let Wheeler setback derail '20 plans

Hahn, club remain committed to contention next season
@scottmerkin
December 4, 2019

CHICAGO -- The White Sox Hot Stove goals have not changed from where they stood when Wednesday began. They are looking for two starting pitchers and a right fielder after already reaching a four-year, $73 million deal with catcher Yasmani Grandal and bringing back organization staple José Abreu at $50

CHICAGO -- The White Sox Hot Stove goals have not changed from where they stood when Wednesday began.

They are looking for two starting pitchers and a right fielder after already reaching a four-year, $73 million deal with catcher Yasmani Grandal and bringing back organization staple José Abreu at $50 million over three years. But disappointment has temporarily replaced exuberance where the rebuilding White Sox are concerned.

Zack Wheeler, whom the White Sox not only strongly pursued but were one of the final teams in consideration for the free-agent right-hander, agreed to a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies on Wednesday. According to an industry source, the White Sox offered Wheeler more than $120 million, which would have been a franchise high, but his fiancée is from New Jersey and that proximity was an important factor in the final decision.

Earlier Wednesday, veteran left-hander Cole Hamels agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with Atlanta, taking another pitcher of interest off the market for Chicago. So, where do the White Sox go from here?

Their significant offer to Wheeler indicates they are in it to win it during the Hot Stove period, with full intention of competing for a winnable American League Central as early as 2020. The team met with Wheeler and pitched its vision, which seemed to hit home for the hurler, who will turn 30 on May 30.

Many fans who are as disappointed as the organization will point to Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg as the next starting options. But the White Sox aren’t necessarily looking for a pitcher for the top of their rotation, or one in their projected financial stratosphere as much as finding a veteran to fit with Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Dylan Cease and the return of a healthy Michael Kopech.

Wheeler would have fit in this picture perfectly. He has a career mark of 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA over 126 starts to go with 726 strikeouts and 270 walks over 749 1/3 innings.

In 2019, Wheeler posted a 3.96 ERA over a career-high 195 1/3 innings, marking the first time he surpassed 190 innings in a season. Wheeler was masterful against the White Sox in a road start on Aug. 1, when he threw seven shutout innings and fanned seven without a walk. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and missed the entire season as well as the ’16 season, and he made just 17 starts in ’17. But Wheeler has made 60 starts and thrown 377 2/3 innings over the past two seasons.

So, the hard-thrower is being paid for his vast future potential as much as his past accomplishments. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner, one of the greatest postseason pitchers in Major League Baseball history, is another top free agent, but he also has thrown 1,846 regular-season innings over 11 years with the Giants compared to Wheeler’s total.

Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel are a few other names to be looked at as the White Sox primary pitching targets on the free-agent market, without even exploring the possibility of trades. While missing out on Wheeler leaves the White Sox in a less-than-upbeat mood, it should be noted this offseason is vastly different for them than last offseason.

Pursuing All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper and All-Star infielder Manny Machado in 2018 actually happened one year early in the rebuild for making such moves than the White Sox had projected, but they tried to take advantage of the existing market. With a focus on contention this time around, Chicago will not stop after one miss.

Every rebuild deals with a rejection or two in the move from the player-development phase to a focus on the playoffs. But White Sox general manager Rick Hahn and his staff have been busy trying to fill other voids as they went strong after Wheeler, so with plenty of financial flexibility intact, their work really has just begun.

Scott Merkin has covered the White Sox for MLB.com since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin and Facebook and listen to his podcast.