By Pronk and Staci
When the Cubs traded for Jose Quintana mid-2017, his stats for the previous four seasons looked super similar to the two most recent campaigns that netted a certain free agent pitcher a very nice 5 yr/$118 million contract from the Phillies:
That's right... when the Cubs traded for Q, they were essentially getting younger, left-handed Zack Wheeler, but with 2 1/2 more years of a proven track record and a better injury history, at around a quarter of the price. To wit (from the great FanGraphs):
You might make the argument that Wheeler's stats came in the juiced ball era, but Quintana's numbers were in the American League with the DH, so until we know how either of those things impact the stats, you could call it pretty even.
But wait! Q hasn't performed up to that level since he's been with the Cubs! That's a fair argument, and one that's been litigated on social media nearly every day for the last two years. But make no mistake--when Thed pulled the trigger on that trade in 2017, Q looked like an absolute steal.
So when you talk about Quintana, you really have to think about two different arguments. First, is he living up to those expectations? Second, is he worth what the Cubs gave up and are paying him? We'll put a pin in that first question and come back to it in another article--otherwise this will turn into a TL:DR in a hurry.
But what about the question of value? Even for the production the Cubs have gotten, Quintana has been worth the value of his contract if you go with the conventional $9 million/win. While 2018 was shaky overall, he did provide some very specific value to the team. The greatest example was his record against the Cubs' biggest division challenger that season, the Milwaukee Brewers. Q threw more innings against Milwaukee than he did any other team--42.1--and was absolutely dominant with a 2.13 ERA. This included 5 innings of one-run ball in that ill-fated game 163 that the Cubs would lose due to a sleeping offense.
Quintana actually had a much better season in 2019--his final ERA was deceptive, and the product of a clunky September that plagued the entire team. Let's go to FanGraphs for a look at fWAR for pitchers in 2019 and see where Q ended up:
So by fWAR, Jose Quintana was a top 30 pitcher in 2019, just ahead of Aaron Nola. If you look at those numbers, you might also notice something else--Q's BABIP was on the high side. Yep, Q probably suffered from some bad luck this season (likely not helped by the Cubs often-shaky defense), backed up by the fact that his FIP was nearly full run lower than his ERA. You can also see that his BB/9 were down from his 2018 season, and his strikeouts per 9 were right in line with his best seasons with the White Sox.
So what's really plaguing Q? Well, like every other pitcher in the league, he's giving up more dingers, although his HR/9 numbers did drop from 2018 to 2019. He also got hit hard a lot more often in 2019 than ever before--his 38.1% hard contact rate was the highest of his career, and the one thing that truly stands out. Perhaps it's a mechanical issue, or more a question of pitch mix, but there's a very good chance that Quintana simply needs to hunker down with Tommy Hottovy and figure a few minor things out to get back where he was with the Sox.
Since coming over in a midseason trade in 2017, Jose Quintana has been a stable piece of the Cubs rotation.
His stats with the Cubs include 429.2 IP over 2.5 seasons, and a combined stat line of 4.23 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 4.00 xFIP and 7.3 fWAR. Here's where he ranks among other qualified starting pitchers in MLB during that time:
-ERA: 25th (Better than Fiers, Gray, Nova, Porcello)
-IP: 19th (More than Lester, Happ, MadBum, Fiers, Tanaka, Nova)
-FIP: 19 (Better than Tanaka, Madbum, Lester)
-Wins: 14th (Better than Gray, Tanaka, deGrom)
-K/9: 20th (first on the team, but .01 behind Cole Hamels, better than MadBum)
-BB/9 23rd (Better than Bauer, Nola, Morton)
-HR/9: 16th (Better than Verlander, Madbum, Lester, Tanaka)
So by fairly standard metrics Quintana is easily a top 25 pitcher over the last 2.5 seasons. Coming off the 2016 championship season, the Cubs had a minor need for a starter to replace Jason Hammel. If Q was a free agent going into 2017, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect him to get a deal ranging 4-6 years of $80-$140 million, or an AAV in the low 20 million. There are usually 2-4 top 25 pitchers, who average 3 fWAR consistently, that hit the market in a given offseason. Let's look at some recent examples:
-Rich Hill 3/48 $16 AAV
-Ivan Nova 3/26 $8.6 AAV
-Mike Minor 3/28 $9.3 AAV
-Jake Arrieta 3/75 $25 AAV
-Yu Darvish $6/126 $21 AAV
-Nathan Eovaldi 4/68 $17 AAV
-Charlie Morton 2/30 $15 AAV
-Anibal Sanchez 2/19 $9.5 AAV
-Hyun-Jin Ryu 4/80 $20
-Zach Wheeler 5/118 $23.6
-Madison Bumgarner 5/85 $17
So yeah, a free agent contract of 4-6 years and $80-140 would be expected. Especially given Quintana's age (28 when the Cubs got him). Most of the pitchers I just listed were 31 or older when signing their deals, to boot.
Once of the appealing things of Quintana was his age and contract. Quintana is presently 30 years old. On March 24, 2014 Q signed a 5 year $26.5 million contract with the White Sox. The Cubs took over that deal and are paying him AAVs of $7, $8.8, $10.5, and $10.5. It's a bargain. It's essentially a 3.5 year 33 million dollar deal. That is a steal for even a mid-rotation type pitcher. But what about the prospect cost?
The Cubs of course did not sign Quintana, but instead traded for him in a huge 4/1 deal. Let's set Matt Rose and Bryant Flete aside, because no one seems to remember them anyway, and just keep this discussion to Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease. The truth about these much lamented losses for the Cubs is that the jury is still way out on what either of them will give the White Sox over the next five years.
Mind you, the White Sox signed Jimenez to a six-year, $43 million deal before the 2019 season, so he's a bargain even if he's only a one-win player per season. But talking about him like he's the second coming of Sammy Sosa is a bit... premature. In his first MLB season, Eloy slashed .267/.313/.513 with 31 HR and 79 RBI. He posted a 116 wRC+, which would've been seventh best on the 2019 Cubs behind Kyle Schwarber's 120 wRC+, and was worth 1.9 fWAR. His defense is, uh, not good--he posted a -6.6 UZR/50 in LF (for reference, Schwarber posted a -0.9 UZR/50 in 2019 and 14 UZR/50 in 2018), so unlike Kyle his best future might actually be at the DH spot. And if you're one of those folks who likes to talk about things like "durability" and "softness," Jimenez already hit the IL twice in his first full season, playing a total of 122 games. It might not mean anything (and to me it doesn't yet), but to some of you it might.
As for Cease, he saw his first major league action in 2019 and started 14 games. Results were ultimately not great, as he ended the season with a 5.79 ERA backed by a 5.19 FIP and a rather high 4.17 BB/9. Obviously, command is still an issue for Cease, and if he doesn't have it together in spring training, we may see him get some more time in triple A before the Sox give him another shot--particularly after adding Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez to the rotation, and the anticipated return of Michael Kopech. Cease posted a 0.7 fWAR, meaning that Quintana was still more valuable than both Cease and Jimenez combined in 2019. But questions do remain:
Should the Cubs have made that trade?
It's worth noting that the biggest FA SP deals signed going into 2017 were Hill, Nova, Morton, Colon and Travis Wood. There weren't many good SPs that year. Since then we've seen big deals go to a handful of better than Q pitchers, but not many mid-range deals until just this offseason. There hasn't been a lot of supply. And given the Wheeler comp, it looked like a no-brainer at the time.
Has Q been worth it?
Yeah, he has. It's an easier sell if the Cubs won another ring the last few years. But considering some of the uneven starter performances they've had from Chatwood, Darvish, and a lack of SPs from the minors, they'd be in a huge need for a SP without Quintana.
Has Q lived up to expectations?
This is the part we'll come back to... stay tuned for Part II!