José Quintana will still be in pinstripes, but he’ll be pitching his home games a few miles north as of this morning. In a blockbuster deal completed before the All-Star break even ended, the Cubs acquired the Colombian left-hander Quintana from the White Sox in exchange for top prospect Eloy Jiménez, top pitching prospect Dylan Cease, and a pair of Single-A infielders in Matt Rose and Bryant Flete.
Theo Epstein and Rick Hahn reportedly stole away from All-Star festivities this week to discuss the deal, and the trade generally surprised the baseball world.
For the Cubs, the deal postures them well for the second half of the season, and bolsters their rotation for the next several years. Quintana has been a top-five pitcher in the American League since his sophomore year, with ERAs between 3.20 and 3.51 from 2013-2016, and DRA marks between 15 and 20 percent better than league average. Quintana is a quintessential control pitcher, with a career walk rate of only 6.5 percent, but he has good stuff, too: his sinker and fourseamer both sit around 92, complemented by an 86 mph changeup and a curveball. Last year, he abandoned his cutter. Versus lefties, he goes almost exclusively fourseamer-curveball, but against righties he uses his changeup around 10 percent of the time. Those secondary pitches get a fair amount of whiffs. In summation, Quintana is just a very good all-around pitcher; not an exorbitant amount of strikeouts, not an abnormal amount of grounders, but enough of both, with few enough walks, to be consistently great. This season, Quintana has struggled to a 4.49 ERA (3.99 DRA), but his peripherals and his last five-to-seven starts have trended in the right direction. In terms of absolute quality, Quintana was possibly the best arm available via trade.
Analysis of the trade hinges partially on that “possibly,” though. The other starters purportedly available—Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija—range between young aces and veteran innings-eaters, but all but Cueto have had their own inconsistencies over the past few seasons. One could argue for Quintana’s supremacy and be quite convincing. However, more important than those pitchers’ qualities, is those players the Cubs made available, and the youth and contract status of those pitchers. Quintana is only 28, and he has one more year left on his contract before two team options in 2019 and 2020 at $10.5 million per year. He’s young, and he’s going to be a Cub for several more years. That is a large part of his appeal to a team like the Cubs, who will be losing two of their starters this offseason and have a yawning chasm in the middle of their rotation. Quintana slots in between Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks for next year’s rotation, and he rounds out a nice Lester-Hendricks-Jake Arrieta playoff rotation for this season.
The Cubs were never going to land a quality starter for 2017 and beyond without parting with either Eloy Jiménez or Ian Happ, and Happ’s breakout 2017, combined with the Cubs’ scuffling offense, essentially made that choice for them. Jiménez was to be included in any deal that the Cubs completed for a non-rental, unless the Cubs were willing to deal a major-league hitter. Despite many overtures to the contrary, it was always highly unlikely that Epstein et al. would part with Happ, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, or Kyle Schwarber. As I posited last week, Jiménez-Cease-plus would be the working package from which the Cubs would deal.
And so, the Cubs got one of the best, if not the best, starter available this deadline, without giving up a major-league piece, and they secured a rotation spot for years to come. Unless Jiménez flames out, this will be a deal that changes the future of two franchises fairly significantly, and this will be a deal that provokes debate for a long time. As of right now, there are some fair critiques already floating around: I think BP’s Jarrett Seidler brought up several important points about payroll and paying in prospects for “cheap” players. If the Cubs fail to land a free agent starter in this offseason’s abundant class, Seidler’s argument will have more merit. As of right now, one would be hard pressed to find another starter who so readily fills the Cubs’ biggest needs.
The main value of Quintana is cheap control and honestly why do you pay so much in talent to get the cheap part if you’re the Cubs?
— Jarrett Seidler (@jaseidler) July 13, 2017
One final consideration, if you’ll allow me. By trading for Quintana on July 13 and not July 31, the Cubs benefit from several more starts from Quintana. With a few games to gain on the division-leading Brewers, those starts could have an outsized impact on the Cubs’ playoff prospects. Making up even one more game in July than they would have without Quintana is important, and a testament to the gravity of the Cubs’ under-.500 situation.
It’s hard to dislike this trade. After all, the Cubs got their man, and their man is very good. Losing Jiménez just one year after losing Gleyber Torres completes the exhaustion of a farm system that was the envy of baseball just two years ago, but with the graduation of top prospects into quality major leaguers and the exchange of top prospects for other quality major leaguers, it’s difficult to be upset. Concerned, yes—there is a large project on the horizon for the Cubs in remaking their farm system—but the Cubs are good now, and their organization has proven fruitful. They are positioned well for the rest of 2017 and better positioned for 2018 than they were prior to the trade.
And, hey, we get to watch Quintana pitch in a Cubs uniform now. That’s pretty cool.
Lead photo courtesy Chris Humphreys—USA Today Sports