White Sox general manager Rick Hahn

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Spiegel: Sox Filling Hot Stove Optimism Void

The White Sox are primed to make a run at Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Matt Spiegel
November 14, 2018 - 2:03 pm
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(670 The Score) This has been a grim offseason so far for the Chicago Cubs.  

Hitting coach Chili Davis was let go amid talk of the "nuanced message" that Cubs batters weren't grasping. 

There were the surprising reports of financial inflexibility, which have only been confirmed and strengthened as the weeks have progressed.

Joe Maddon will officially enter 2019 as a lame-duck manager, and if I had to bet on it, I’d say he doesn't last the season. 

Jim Hickey has been essentially hung out to dry as a lame-duck pitching coach, as his security went unclarified by feisty president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. 

Then there were the Kris Bryant trade rumors, which seemed conflated from combining various threads of information that have been lingering for some time. Even if the ESPN article sat somewhere between learned speculation and pure clickbait, it wasn't any fun to consider. 

As I wrote after the Cubs' wild card elimination, sustained success never felt so empty. Between the recently completed GM Meetings and the Winter Meetings in December, that feeling has only grown.

Thankfully, optimism is available in the strangest of places. 

The White Sox's rebuild endured a brutal second season of big league ugliness, with only a few individual bright spots. But November has been good for White Sox fans. 

The White Sox are primed to be legitimate players in the big-money free-agent market offseason, even if the timing doesn't line up perfectly with the core being ready to win. They’ve been connected in rumors to left-hander Patrick Corbin, outfielder Michael Brantley and of course the big two: outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado. After surprisingly green lighting the teardown two years ago, owner Jerry Reinsdorf may be on the precipice of his Mike Ilitch chapter -- let’s go win one more for the old man in his 80s. 

There's precedent for what the White Sox will apparently try to do -- and not just in the oft-referenced Jayson Werth signing by the Nationals ahead of the 2011 season. The Ilitch-owned Tigers gave us another memorable comparison, one that White Sox fans should remember.

The 2002 Detroit Tigers lost 106 games. The 2003 version was worse, losing 119. In 2004, they jumped to 72-90, a fourth-place team still pretty far away.  

In that ensuing offseason, Magglio Ordonez was an intriguing player. The White Sox neglected to even offer him arbitration, fearing a recurrence of the frightening knee injury that had derailed his 2004. The Tigers decided to gamble on Ordonez to the tune of five years and $75 million.

The deal was complicated. Offset language protected the team if the knee problems returned. As it turned out, incentives were hit, and Ordonez turned it into a seven-year, $105-million dollar contract. In that offseason moment of truth, the last remaining high-profile free agent was off the market, snapped up by a downtrodden division rival that didn’t seem particularly close to being a contender. 

The 2005 Tigers were still bad, going 71-91. That made it 12 losing seasons out of the 13 in which Ilitch had been the owner.

But 2006 was the breakout. A second-place finish in the American League Central and a trip to the World Series as the wild-card team were fruits of the Ordonez signing, among other moves. A couple 23-year-old starting pitchers named Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander helped.

Swap in Carlos Rodon or Michael Kopech or Dylan Cease in that scenario. It’s not difficult to picture the 2020 White Sox finally turning it around, after Bryce Harper or Manny Machado set the tone throughout one final losing season. 

When the harbinger signing is just 26 years old, as both Harper and Machado will be on Opening Day, a move this early makes sense. You’re paying for their absolute prime. Plus, it would establish the White Sox as legitimate players on the big-market scale and energize a fan base that badly needs the push. 

Of course, that’s not the only source of hope for the White Sox in the last few weeks. In the Arizona Fall League, 21-year-old outfielder Luis Robert reminded us why he was the most sought-after Cuban prospect in the last few years. 

He played only 50 games due to thumb injuries in 2018, but in the AFL, both his numbers and athleticism were striking. Players, coaches and scouts all stopped whatever they were doing when Robert came to the plate. His bat speed, exit velocity and overall power are special. 

But what excited me more about Robert than even slugger Eloy Jimenez among White Sox prospects is his overall five-tool package. Robert’s cannon of an arm is outrageous. He runs so smoothly as he tracks fly balls, and scouts say he never looks out of control on defense. He steals bases. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he has that tantalizing overall decathlete’s ceiling that makes the mind reel with his potential.

Maybe it’s me. I've always been inspired by this kind of young, beautiful MLB athlete. It’s a football body in a baseball uniform -- Eric Davis,  Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., Yasiel Puig as a prospect. Even players who didn’t quite pan out as superstars come to mind, like Brian Jordan or Reggie Sanders. They're 30-30 players waiting to happen who might also be the best defensive player on the roster.

If you want more Robert dreaming, listen to White Sox minor league hitting instructor Charlie Poe and MLB Network Radio host Mike Ferrin as they wax rhapsodic about him in this podcast with Chuck Garfien from NBC Sports Chicago. 

A mid-2020 White Sox outfield of Harper-Robert-Jimenez sounds pretty good. 

The free-agent fantasies may all be for nought, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see the White Sox taking this moment seriously. Now what’s left to wonder is if the free-agent targets themselves take the White Sox seriously. 

Let Kopech recover. Let Cease work his way to the big leagues. Hopefully Alec Hansen bounces back. Someday, Nick Madrigal will get a chance to never strike out in the big leagues. There are more exciting young players on the way than there will be spots for them to fill.

There’s an optimism void in the Chicago Hot Stove season, just begging the White Sox to fill it. This time, they appear to be up to the challenge.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670. For more from and about Matt, visit www.mattspiegel.com.​​​