White Sox Likely To Prioritize Trades Over Free Agency As They Navigate Payroll Constraints

The White Sox go into the offseason looking to bounce back from an average season. That registered as a major disappointment for a team that entered 2022 as favorites in the AL Central, leaving the front office to regroup in a renewed effort at competing for the division.

It doesn’t seem Chicago will have much leeway to make many free agent acquisitions. General manager Rick Hahn told reporters yesterday that trades are the likelier avenue to improving the roster (link via Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times). Hahn indicated the team would open 2023 with a player payroll similar to this year’s mark. Chicago opened the 2022 campaign with a payroll around $193MM, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, but James Fegan of the Athletic reports the club is eyeing a figure more in the $180MM range to start next season.

There’s no indication $180MM represents a strict cap for the Sox front office, but anything in that range would limit Hahn and his staff in taking on many salaries of note. Chicago has around $139MM in guaranteed commitments on next year’s books, including option buyouts for AJ PollockJosh Harrison and Dallas Keuchel, according to Roster Resource. Arbitration-eligible players are projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for roughly $26MM in additional salaries, and pre-arbitration players rounding out the roster would cost around $10MM. Non-tendering Adam Engel would knock a couple million dollars off that figure, but the Sox still have roughly $173MM allocated to the roster before looking outside the organization.

Much of that money is committed to key players coming off down years. Yasmani GrandalYoán Moncada and Lance Lynn each have salaries in the $18MM range. Grandal and Moncada had rough 2022 campaigns and would be impossible to move without eating a notable chunk of salary. The Sox could probably find a taker for Lynn, but dealing him would only weaken a starting rotation that’s already one of the team’s biggest question marks.

Dylan Cease is locked in at the top of the staff, with Lynn and Lucas Giolito following him. Giolito is projected for a $10.8MM salary in his final year of arbitration. He’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, but there’s no chance the Sox would non-tender him and a trade seems like an unlikely sell-low. Hahn expressed confidence in the righty’s ability to bounce back, pointing to his work ethic and relationship with pitching coach Ethan Katz (via Van Schouwen). Michael Kopech figures to have the fourth rotation spot locked down, but Chicago will have to replace free agent Johnny Cueto. Hahn suggested Davis Martin could compete for the fifth spot but admitted that filling it externally would be ideal. The GM suggested Reynaldo López and Jimmy Lambert — each of whom has started in the past — were locked into the bullpen at this point.

The relief corps should be the backbone of the club, with Liam HendriksKendall GravemanJoe Kelly and López taking high-leverage innings. Chicago has invested heavily in that area in recent offseasons, but another splash there looks unlikely given the payroll limitations and needs elsewhere on the roster.

On the position player side, second base and right field have been persistent questions. Chicago bought out Harrison, leaving them with some combination of Leury GarcíaLenyn Sosa and Danny Mendick as the favorites for second base playing time. Jean Segura is the top option in a weak free agent class there, while players like Cavan Biggio and Kevin Newman could be attainable via trade.

Right field was unexpectedly vacated by Pollock declining his player option yesterday. Andrew Vaughn has played there but is headed to his natural first base position with José Abreu highly likely to depart in free agency. Engel, Gavin Sheets and Mark Payton are part of a lackluster collection of internal options. Hahn name-checked Oscar Colás, coming off a .306/.364/.563 showing in Double-A, as a candidate for the right field job, but the 24-year-old has just seven games of MLB experience.

Trade possibilities in right field include Teoscar HernándezAnthony SantanderMax Kepler and Jake McCarthy. Given Hahn’s comments, dipping into that market seems likelier than a run at Andrew BenintendiMitch Haniger or Joc Pederson, although platoon options like Wil MyersRobbie Grossman and Tyler Naquin would be attainable in free agency for a few million dollars.

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