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Machado made in heaven? Sox covet Manny as potential championship centerpiece

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Buckle up for another wild winter of free-agent spending in Chicago baseball.

But this time, leave the Cubs out of it.

It’s the White Sox with the wheelbarrow full of cash this year. The rebuilding South Siders are in a unique position to outspend their deep-pocketed crosstown rivals in the most anticipated free-agent market in years.

“Everything we’ve done for the last few years was planned for us to have all of our options available to us at this time,” executive vice president Ken Williams said this week as the general managers meetings ushered in the unofficial start of the hot-stove league.

Former White Sox superstar Frank Thomas shakes hands during the World Series with ... future Sox superstar Manny Machado?

Those options, not surprisingly, include generational free agents Bryce Harper and, more specifically, Manny Machado, who are front and center in the White Sox’ landscape, if not their sights.

After stockpiling touted prospects the last two years while stripping down payroll obligations, the Sox are nearing a competitive pivot point with less money on the books than any other team in the majors.

And the timing of that enormous spending power has baseball executives buzzing this week about the likelihood the Sox will be one of the most aggressive suitors for Machado, the 26-year-old superstar infielder projected to command a deal in the neighborhood of 10 years and at least $300 million.

“While we are not yet in position realistically to be adding so-called finishing pieces, we are in a position where we need to be opportunistic with regards to the free-agent market,” general manager Rick Hahn said last month. “You can’t always control when certain players become available.”

Williams and Hahn won’t address specific players they’re targeting. But in addition to short-term pitching needs, their interest in Machado as a centerpiece for their next competitive window is an open secret.

They were heavily involved last winter in trade talks for Machado before the Orioles took him off the market.

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And one major-league executive predicted during the season that the Sox would be a top challenger to the Phillies for Machado as a free agent this winter, with multiple national reports in the past week linking him to the Sox.

“We’ve gotten to the point where you can start seeing the transition into the next stage coming into sight,” Hahn said Tuesday, “whether that’s in ’19 or the year after. You’re starting to see it come together at the minor-league level. And as a result we’re interested in adding to that group where opportunities arise.”

The models for a big-ticket signing at this point of the rebuilding process include the Nationals’ signing hard-nosed Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year,
$126 million contract coming off a last-place 2010 season, and the Cubs’ signing Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal coming off a last-place 2014 season.

The Nationals won 98 games two years later to start a run of four division titles in six years. The Cubs won 97 games in Lester’s first year — a year ahead of their own projections — with playoff trips every season since.

“I don’t think there’s a factor that we’re not looking at these days,” Williams said when asked about those comparisons, stressing the depth of the club’s analysis of its own timeline and the available players.

Whether any of Machado’s postseason antics or lollygagging lowered initial projections of his market value, “It couldn’t have helped,” said one American League executive this week.

But the talent that made him a four-time All-Star by age 25 and a two-time Gold Glove winner at third base is the stuff of championships.

And he’s widely regarded as a good teammate, though the Sox have never shied away from so-called bad-boy reputations.

Could he soon become the highest paid player in franchise history?

“You don’t know what you can and cannot afford until you get to that point [of negotiating],” said Williams, who called the projections for Harper and Machado speculation. “Everyone has a limit.

“We’ll take a look at what the market bears and then we’ll sit down and have a discussion.”