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The real reason Rick Hahn deserves praise for the White Sox rebuild

The Jose Quintana trade is only a small part of what the White Sox GM has put into motion in Chicago.

MLB: New York Yankees at Chicago White Sox Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Hahn is receiving deserved praised for the hauls he received for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana in the last eight months, but those three trades aren’t his most impressive feat as White Sox general manager.

Instead, look back at the three straight spring trainings in which Hahn had the foresight to lock up all three future stars to pre-arb extensions. First, in 2013, came Sale, who signed a 5-year, $32 million deal with two options after accruing just two years of service time. A year later, the club locked Quintana into a 5-year, $26.5 million extension with two options. Then in 2015, Eaton signed a 5-year, $23.5 million deal with, you guessed it, two club options.

Let’s look at the worst case scenario there and pretend all three didn’t pan out after signing their deals. With the options unlikely to be picked up in this case, Chicago would’ve spent a combined $82 million over a seven-year stretch, which really isn’t much for a team that is comfortable having its payroll in the $115-120 million range. The deals would’ve been looked at as low-risk, high-reward propositions that didn’t work, but didn’t hamstring the team’s payroll or prevent them from making other moves.

Instead, Hahn and his front office group got the best case scenario. Sale turned into one of the best pitchers in the game, posting a 21.5 fWAR in four seasons with the White Sox after the deal. Quintana, despite his struggles this year, turned in a 16.7 fWAR since signing his deal, and Eaton was worth 9.7 fWAR in his two post-extension years with Chicago.

Faced with the decision on how to proceed with a 78-84 club after last season, Hahn realized the bounty he could get on the trade market with two effective, controllable starters and an effective, controllable center-fielder, all entering their primes. Shopping Sale on a 3-year, $38 million deal and Quintana on what amounts to a 2.5-year, $26.425 million deal would’ve brought in a haul at any point, but the price became astronomical due to the weak free-agent starting pitching class last winter (only three pitchers got a deal worth more than $20 million in total money) and a deadline group full of question marks and misfits (Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole among them) this summer.

Hahn could have dealt Sale a year ago, but showed patience and waited until he was able to get the absolute best offer from Boston to pull the trigger in December. He could’ve dealt Quintana then too, but again, showed patience and got a great haul from the Cubs. Eaton’s name wasn’t mentioned in rumors much before the deal, though Washington’s package was viewed by the industry as a haul for the ChiSox possibly influenced by the Nats missing out on other targets (Sale, Mark Melancon and Andrew McCutchen) and wanting to make a splash while the winter meetings were on their turf.

Hahn was able to show that patience because of the extensions he got done previously, as the trio’s contracts were good enough that two fewer months of control had no bearing on their trade value. Cheap, controllable starting pitchers are the belles of the ball in baseball’s current trade market, followed by cheap, controllable up-the-middle players.

Thirteen months ago, Chicago’s farm looked a lot like Tim Anderson, Carson Fulmer and a ton of question marks. Then came the draft (hello, Zack Collins, Zack Burdi and Alec Hansen), the winter meetings (welcome, Moncada, Kopech, Giolito and Lopez), a key international signing (here’s $26 million, Luis Robert), another draft (sup, Jake Burger) and Thursday (join the club, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease). That’s a crazy amount of talent to infuse into an organization in that short of a span.

With Thursday’s trade, the White Sox suddenly have what many consider to be the best farm system in baseball, having seven players rank in Baseball America’s ranking of the league’s top 100 prospects. That falls just short of the Braves, who have 9 of the top 100 in the latest ranking, tied for the record shared by the 2006 Dodgers and 2011 Royals. In a polarized minor-leagues where four teams have 29 of the top 100 prospects in baseball, the ChiSox’ group (including two in the top five and three of the top 20) is extremely strong.

Though being able to trade Sale, Eaton and Quintana for 11 prospects before the end of 2017 wasn’t Hahn’s intent when he locked them up early in their careers, it’s an incredibly useful side effect of his savvy general managing. In most cases over the past few years (Chris Archer, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Altuve and Mike Trout immediately come to mind), pre-arb deals have turned out wonderfully for clubs, even if there have been a few doozies (Chris Johnson, Allen Craig and Jon Singleton) come to mind.

Hahn, seeing the success of his first three pre-arb deals, made another one during spring training of this season. Anderson is now locked up through the 2024 season for at least $25 million and at most $50.5 million, which is a bargain for eight seasons. Look for more White Sox (Carlos Rodon is a candidate) to do the same in the future.

The reward is just too great to not take the risk of a pre-arb deal, if the player is willing to entertain one. Hahn knows this and now gets to reap the benefits, even if it’s not exactly how he envisioned.