The White Sox are one of four major league baseball teams to have never signed a player to a contract of more than $70 million in total value. The other three are the notoriously small-market Oakland A's, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians.
Their largest contract ever, six years and $68 million to Jose Abreu, was hardly without risk, given that there was no way to be certain how his skills would translate, but obviously offered the opportunity for large amounts of surplus value based on what was ultimately a highly correct notion that Abreu's talents would command a much higher value if he had began his career in the US. When it comes to the Sox paying market value for proven talents in free agency, their spending ceiling is probably even lower.
The White Sox entered this offseason with a clear prerogative to try to round out a roster around a core entering its prime--which they have obvious recognized given subsequent trades that have made short-term talent additions--facing a historically deep market for outfielders (four All-Stars still producing at prime levels) with arguably more need at that position than any other organization. Any corner outfielder acquisition the Sox make potentially improves two positions where the White Sox have sub-replacement incumbents, since it would both push Avisail Garcia out of full-time work in right field, but also push Garcia or Melky Cabrera over as a platoon partner for Adam LaRoche when there was no one significant in that role last season.
Now, in the aftermath of the big foursome of outfielders off the board, all of them agreeing to deals at or below their pre-free agency projections--Cespedes is weird because he has a very high AAV but the years of commitment are way below expectation--but still beyond where any White Sox free agency contract has plateaued. A charitable view of the Alex Gordon and and Yoenis Cespedes negotiations would offer that both seemed uniquely motivated to return to their original teams, but that offers no defense as to why they were never in on Justin Upton or Jason Heyward, both unusually young free agents. Instead it was considered naive to even dream that the Sox would pursue Heyward due to price, despite him being inoculated against nearly every pitfall usually cited for why free agency is poisonous: 26 years-old, provides value in several ways, an even bet that his best year is ahead of him rather than behind him.
Is there any reason to think Gordon and Cespedes turned away superior offers from the White Sox to return to their old teams based on what was reported anywhere, based on any public stance they took, or most importantly, their history? Moreover, given their franchise history, to conclude that the White Sox consistent and intentional avoidance of large investments in single free agents is not a significant factor in them being without a major free agent outfield addition, despite a historically deep crop and an extreme current need, is to choose hope over evidence.
This is admittedly taking more time than I would like to map out, but I want to be specific. This is not to cry foul over not getting Cespedes (he might of been the worst option of the group) or cast doubt on the chances for the Sox to build a competitor for 2016 (they still can and probably will), or even criticize the work Rick Hahn has done (he has a wonderful offseason and cemented my belief he's a top-10 GM in the sport). The point here is that the White Sox current state fits clearly fits into a pattern of behavior, or a philosophy. We can and should debate the merits of avoiding sinking massive dollars into single free agent targets, but I'm perplexed why we would pretend that aversion isn't there, since they are going to duck going over $70 million on a free agent despite the most need and opportunity to do so than they have or will have for years.
Here's a quick take on it: It's bad. Not because free agency isn't treacherous, not because free agents aren't typically on the downside of their career, not because "overpaying" is basically required to close most deals, not because the combination of ownership's strictness in budgeting and hesitation to eat bad money could make a slip-up at that level of pay potentially paralyzing for years. It's because it closes an avenue for acquiring talent, in this case, elite talent, and any time a team closes an avenue to acquiring talent, they put themselves at a disadvantage that they need to make up for in other areas.
They can do it. The Sox can develop pitching better than the Royals and Tigers, they can keep their players healthier, and their front office has shown their ability to flip their talent with savvy to inexpensively fill holes throughout their lineup, but when they are routinely shutout from the immediate talent injections that can be bought at the upper tiers of free agent spending, the degree of difficulty gets that much more extreme.
I hope they can do it. It can be their badge of honor, but until then it is their burden.