For a good portion of the off season, the Rays and Cubs were rumoured to be working on a trade. The two teams never came to terms on a deal, and it's possible that the North Siders are content with the additions of Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Jason Heyward as their major coups of their off season.
What seems to have happened through those trade talks, however, is an ignited interest on the South side from the White Sox who have intriguing pieces to include in any deal. As Bruce Levine recently reported:
"The Tampa Bay Rays seem to be the target for many conversations between numerous clubs, including the White Sox and the Cubs. More than 10 clubs have asked Tampa about the availability of its young pitching."
That puts the Rays in a fairly powerful position, holding what a reported ten teams are looking for in trade. He notes that Jake Odorizzi hails from Illinois and that both he and Desmond Jennings could be attractive targets for the White Sox this off season. Their GM, Rick Hahn, is quoted as stating "the season has not started yet, we are still a work in progress".
White Sox Situation
Although much of MLB is concentrated on battles in the American League East and West, the Central division includes some of the best teams in MLB. The reigning Champion Royals and the reloaded Tigers represent impressive teams the White Sox would need to beat in order to earn a playoff spot, unless the second Wild Card team also comes from the Central division. In that case, they would still need to beat the Indians and Twins, something not easily done by a team that won only 76 games in 2015.
With this in mind, the White Sox added some key pieced this off season, including Todd Frazier at the hot corner, Brett Lawrie at 2B, and both Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro behind the plate. All four deepen a roster at key positions and support what should be a much improved offensive team.
It's likely that SS prospect Tim Anderson will join them in the infield and will add a youthful spirit to what is a team now filled with experience and veterans, although Ian Desmond remains an outside possibility.
The area that has been left untouched, to this point, in the off season is the rotation which boasts Chris Sale and Jose Quintana at the top, and includes Carlos Rodon, John Danks, and Erik Johnson. This is where the link to the Rays begins, as many expect the White Sox to aggressively seek to add pitching depth and possibly seek a starter that would slot in between those two tiers of starters.
Options and the Investment
So why link the Rays to the White Sox if someone like Yovani Gallardo, who could easily slot in as a quality number three starter, is still on the free agent market? Particularly when the White Sox are one of the ten teams that have their first round draft pick in the 2016 MLB draft protected?
One word: Money.
On the financial front, the White Sox are at the top of their budget with over $114 million already spoken for and more to come. The highest budget the White Sox have ever operated with was approximately $127 million in 2011. Since then, the range has been from $90 million to $118 million.
With no assurances that spending the money above-and-beyond anything they've ever spent will bring the playoffs to the South side of Chicago, and with such tremendous opponents to contend with, it seems more likely that they seek a more cost-effective route of improving their team, something they've never shied away from in the past.
One thing we can deduce from their actions is that they likely didn't sign David Robertson to a 4-year $46 million contract just to sit out the playoffs for that length of time. The more likely scenario is that they love the core they have in-house and they want to take a shot at winning it all in 2016.
In looking through the White Sox roster, there's a good argument to be made that there are three glaring areas of need. In no order of importance, they are: starting pitching depth, a fourth outfielder, and a short-stop.
On the last point, there's a good chance they don't want to block their top prospect - Tim Anderson - and that they'll use what they have in-house to make due until he's ready for a call up, or from the beginning of the season. With this in mind, it leaves a starter and a fourth outfielder as the most glaring opportunities for improvement, and coincidentally, something the Rays may be able to offer.
Rays Pieces the White Sox Could Target
Some of the pieces the White Sox could target in trade with the Rays are fairly obvious and have been mentioned again-and-again this off season. Jake Odorizzi, who the Rays have been reportedly attempting to extend, is one candidate, and Alex Cobb who is returning from injury and is unlikely to be ready before mid-summer is another. Both offer top three caliber pitching.
The price on Odorizzi and Cobb would - and should - be fairly steep; therefore, if the price is found to be too steep for the White Sox, they could target Drew Smyly instead. Although his recovery from a torn labrum may turn off teams searching for pitching help, that injury was likely old and he's still quite young. What may make him less attractive is the fact that the White Sox rotation already boasts 4 LHP, making a RHP a more likely target. The same thought process rules out Matt Moore.
Erasmo Ramirez could be a target, but he is not yet to the caliber of Odorizzi or Cobb, so the return would match the value. With Ramirez, the Rays would be dealing a cost-conrolled pitcher who ate up huge innings last year with outstanding results, something that many didn't expect from him prior to 2015. Seeing it happen again would increase his trade value, but for now teams may believe it was a one year event.
With this in mind, let's assume for argument's sake that Odorizzi or Cobb would be the targets.
Fourth outfielder / outfield depth:
On the outfield side of things, the Rays have two pieces that would significantly increase the quality of the depth they have to work with on the South side of Chicago. It's not all about Jennings, the only outfielder mentioned in Levine's piece.
Brandon Guyer managed 31 extra base hits last season in limited playing time (332 AB) and chipped in with 10 SB. He only struck out 15.8% of the time, managed a .146 ISO, a .342 wOBA, 121 wRC+ and an impressive 2.4 WAR. That has to carry some enticing trade value, particularly when he only costs $1.185 million this year and is under control for two more seasons.
Desmond Jennings may not have had his best season to date in 2015, far from it, but as recently as 2013 he put up numbers that match up almost identically with Dexter Fowler's. That, the fact that he slots in well at the top of the lineup, and his ability to play all over the outfield should create some interest. He is not too expensive at $3.3 million, and if he builds up his value and the White Sox are still out of the playoff hunt, he could become a valuable trade chip with one more year of control.
While normally it would make sense to include someone like Mikie Mahtook or Logan Morrison in the conversation because they can each play the outfield, each has reason to not be included.
Mahtook is the kind of controlled cost the Rays seek, not trade, and his defense is quite valuable. As for the left handed Morrison, he's on the wrong side of the platoon need, and with both Adam Laroche and Jose Abreu on the roster, it seems unlikely that the White Sox would trade for Morrison without having a clear spot to play against right handed pitching.
With this in mind, we'll assume for argument's sake that Guyer or Jennings would be the target.