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Unlike Adam Eaton, José Quintana made it to the very end of his contract for the team to which the White Sox traded him.
Like Eaton, his final year in that uniform wasn’t a great way to head into free agency.
Quintana only pitched 10 innings for the Cubs in 2020, sidelined early by a freak thumb injury, then by a more traditional lat injury midway through. The guy who was supposed to bolster the Cubs rotation for multiple postseason runs only participated in one of them, and even his dependability took a hit thanks to a wine glass of all things.
So Quintana is on the market, and just like Eaton, there’s a vacancy on the White Sox roster that kinda fits his shape. The White Sox don’t need a Cy Young-caliber arm after acquiring Lance Lynn, but they could use somebody who isn’t likely to miss chunks of season to injury or ineffectiveness. Quintana met that description for his first 2½ seasons with the Cubs, and while the White Sox are trying to become less insular this winter, the Eaton signing shows that they can still fall for familiarity.
Wherever Quintana signs, the lapsing of the contract extension Rick Hahn engineered means the other side of the deal has concluded business. So just like Eaton, let’s take a look at how it shook out.
PERTINENT: Closing the book on the Adam Eaton trade
What do the White Sox have to show for it?
The trade has met expectations, and almost eerily so. Eloy Jiménez is the charismatic star-in-waiting, Dylan Cease’s talent is MLB-caliber but divisive, and Matt Rose and Bryant Flete were destined to be remembered by White Sox hipsters and FutureSox staffers.
If the White Sox were right about the top two players on this card, then their return hasn’t quite crested yet. Jiménez hit .296/.332/.559 last year, yet it feels like he hasn’t scratched the ceiling of his value thanks to his 52 percent ground-ball rate and maddening-yet-improving play in left field. Cease conquered his biggest question mark he carried into the organization — throwing 100 pitches every five days — and now he just has to stop yanking his fastball gloveside. Nobody doubts the stuff.
If Cease is designed to frustrate — some guys never iron out mechanical inconsistency to throw six innings on a reliable basis — then the return is closer to the Eaton deal in the sense that it accomplished time-shifting with an above-average player for a below-market salary on a roster spot. The good news is that Rick Hahn was able to push Jiménez’s presence even further into the future than Lucas Giolito, at least at the moment. The White Sox had Quintana signed through 2020, while Jiménez is under team control through 2026. He won’t hit eight figures in salary until 2024.
What do the Cubs have to show for it?
Quintana won exactly 13 games in each of his last three full seasons. He pitched in exactly 32 games in each of his last five full seasons. In that sense, it’s hard to say he was part of the Cubs’ problems. Not with Yu Darvish needing a year and a half to get healthy, then right. Not with Tyler Chatwood flopping.
It’s also fair to say that he wasn’t quite the problem-solver the Cubs hoped for, either. After throwing four consecutive 200-inning seasons for the White Sox, he pitched shallower into games with each successive season — 188⅔ innings in 2017, 174⅓ in 2018, followed by 171 in 2019.
National League rules dictated some of the brevity, because nobody should want to see Quintana hit for himself (I’ve mentioned before that Quintana looked like he should be able to connect enough for the occasional single, but he’s a lifetime .071 hitter). But he also became far more hittable after the first time through, a phenomenon that wasn’t as acutely felt during his time with the White Sox.
To put it another way, Quintana only pitched into the seventh inning 14 times over his two full seasons with the Cubs. Meanwhile, he lasted 6+ innings 18 times during his final season with the White Sox alone.
At least Quintana had his health … at least until he sliced a nerve in his thumb during a dish-washing accident in June, shortly before the Cubs were to report for summer camp. He ended up pitching in only four games during the 2020 season, with left lat inflammation costing him weeks in between.
What does the scoreboard say?
What does the scoreboard not say?
Well, Jiménez and Cease have only started building their bodies of work, while Quintana’s sitting in the clubhouse, so there’s that.
The Cubs also have a temporary lead in postseason contributions, even if Quintana didn’t quite factor into their October plans over the last three years. He only ended up pitching in one Cubs postseason run, making four appearances in 2017. Two of his starts were decent, but his dud in Game 5 sealed the series loss to the Dodgers.
For the time being, that’s more than the White Sox have seen from their side. A foot injury limited Jiménez to two plate appearances in Game 3 of the Wild Card series, while Cease threw an inning of low-leverage work thanks to control problems during the regular season. If all goes according to plan, they should have chances to add to their record in 2021 and beyond.
The Quintana trade looks like the finest maneuvering of Hahn’s career. The Chris Sale trade stands a better chance at a better return, but Sale was the better pitcher, and traded near the peak of his value. The Quintana trade required some finesse. Hahn couldn’t find the deal he liked during the winter, potentially because he’d already flooded the market with cost-controlled contracts by putting Sale and Eaton on the block.
When Quintana scuffled out of the gate in 2017, plagued by unwanted fastball cut that led to control problems, it seemed like Hahn might’ve overplayed his hand. Fortunately, Quintana dusted himself of with a better June, and though his first two starts of July were less impressive, he still managed to strike a deal that extracted a true headliner in Jiménez, and a high-ceiling secondary player in Cease.
It’s easy to say “Thanks, Cubs!” with every Jiménez highlight — especially when he’s 8-for-25 with three homers in crosstown competition. It’s not like the Cubs have a way to respond anymore.
Still, work remains in order for the White Sox to plant the flag. Between Jiménez’s tendency to miss time and flies, and with Cease’s mechanical issues proving far more stubborn than we’d hoped, there’s a non-zero chance that both players come up just short of satisfying, even if one or both has no problem meeting average. The idea is to turn one roster-spot fixture into two, and the Sox are only halfway there.
If Cease isn’t Job One for Ethan Katz, then it’s only because Michael Kopech is just a little more imposing. He’s just as big a deal in a smaller package, and should a new pitching coach give Cease a new lease on his release, then the Sox are in that position to double their pleasure. It’ll mean less heavy lifting for Hahn over the course of the next few years, and a few more elbows into the ribs of the neighbors to the north.
(Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr)