Unlike the Aroldis Chapman rental, the most recent Cubs trade could have its greatest impact next year.
No one is saying that the Chicago Cubs are out of contention in 2017.
The defending World Series champions entered the All-Star break with a record under .500 at 43-45 and 5.5 games behind the surprising Milwaukee Brewers for the lead in the National League Central. At the break, they were 7.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies for the second NL wild-card spot. Yes, this is an underachieving and underperforming team, but they are by no means out of striking distance for a spot in the playoffs.
To that effect, Thursday’s trade between the Cubs and their crosstown rivals, the Chicago White Sox, makes sense for a team that rightly still considers itself in the hunt for October. The Cubs acquired left-hander José Quintana from the ChiSox for four prospects, including outfielder Eloy Jimenez (ranked eighth according to MLB.com) and right-hander Dylan Cease (ranked 63rd).
Patrick Semansky - AP Photo
Quintana will slot into a Cubs rotation beset by injuries and inconsistency that, when healthy, could be considered one of the best in the NL. Except at the moment, on the injury side they are currently without John Lackey (plantar fasciitis) and Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis). And on the inconsistency side, Jon Lester was coming off a start in which he permitted 10 runs without finishing the first inning, and Jake Arrieta has hardly resembled the Cy Young winning, dominant ace of two years ago.
Those four pitchers, so essential to baseball’s best rotation (by ERA) last season, are primarily why Chicago currently ranks seventh in the NL in rotation ERA (4.65) and eighth in FIP (4.54). Even though Quintana has not been at his best in 2017, the Cubs hope they have found their fix in him.
Let’s say Quintana is not the solution in 2017. Let’s say his 1.78 ERA in June is a mirage, and that, like the Cubs, this is simply just not his year. Chicago fails to make the playoffs, or, even if they do, they lose in the volatile wild-card game and go home without another set of rings. Was this the wrong deal?
Unlike the Aroldis Chapman trade of last season, the José Quintana deal is not the acquisition of a rental. Thanks to Quintana’s team-friendly contract, this North Side-South Side swap impacts the Cubs through 2020. And that, regardless of how the Cubs finish this season, is why this trade looks so good for them.
“It wasn’t about the circumstances this year, whether it’s a given team or how many games back we were or how poorly we played in the first half. It really was about following through on our long-term strategy and seeing an opportunity to execute when it has been so difficult to execute in the past — acquiring this caliber of pitcher.” – Theo Epstein, Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations
Quintana may not be the flashiest starting pitcher in the majors, but he compares remarkably well with baseball’s established aces. Over the past three seasons, Quintana ranks seventh among all starters in fWAR (13.9), which is a tick above the surprisingly similar Jon Lester. While he does not have the same strikeout numbers as his teammate Lester, what Quintana does provide is durability; José has thrown 200+ innings in each of the past four seasons. At 28, he is also five years younger than Lester.
Not only is Quintana a plus on the mound, but he is also a plus in the budget. Quintana’s contract will earn him $7 million at the end of this season. He is guaranteed $8.85 million for 2018, which again is a bargain for a player of his quality. On top of these friendly discounts, Quintana has $10.5 million team options for 2019 and 2020, respectively. If Quintana dramatically falls off or gets injured, the buyouts for those team options are just $1 million each. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan summarized, “Quintana is good, Quintana is durable, and Quintana is cheap.”
Indeed, Quintana is all three, but his greatest strength to the Cubs is that he is controllable. When Ryan Pollack at FanGraphs argued that Chicago is in prime dynasty position (before this season, of course), he drew attention to the fact that the Cubs as a team controlled the highest amount of projected WAR of any team through 2021. His chart illustrates this point better than my words:
Yes, we all know the Cubs are talented. In addition, like Quintana, the Cubs are also cheap, for the most part. Pollack created another graph looking at team’s controlled surplus value. He assigned $8.5 million per one WAR (inflated by five percent each year) and then subtracted each team’s payroll from the dollar value of each team’s projected WAR. Again, a chart serves as a better explanation, and Pollack’s is below:
This is where the Cubs truly dominate. Intuitively, it makes sense. The Cubs have a young core in Kris Bryant (25 years old), Anthony Rizzo (27), Addison Russell (23), Javier Baez (24), Wilson Contreras (25), and Kyle Schwarber (24). Add in Albert Almora (23), Ian Happ (22), and/or Jeimar Candelario (23), if you feel so inclined! Rizzo would be the only one in or past the arbitration phase of team control, but he was already signed early in his Cubs career to a team-friendly contract extension. The point is, many of the Cubs’ most valuable pieces are young and affordable.
Next season, when Russell and Bryant hit arbitration for the first time, the team will still control Lester, Hendricks, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward, among others. That’s a pretty strong roster, and should Arrieta, Lackey, and Davis depart in free agency, the Cubs will still have some $40 million to work with if they keep the same payroll. A strong, cost-effective starter like Quintana is nothing less than a perfect fit in that blueprint.
Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports
Of course, this is baseball and so there are a billion caveats. For one, Pollack’s analysis came before the struggles of the 2017 Cubs, including those of supposed franchise pieces like Russell and Schwarber. For another, the young Brewers may have arrived earlier than anticipated, giving Chicago a strong in-division challenger.
Moreover, veterans like Zobrist, Heyward, and Lester have been subpar to say the least, which could turn their contracts from reasonable to albatrosses. The two-year timespan of Quintana’s deal from still looks to be within the Cubs’ window of championship contention. Then again, that was the narrative at the start of this season.
To the effect of “you never know,” the Cubs could be dealing two future superstars in Jimenez and Cease. For a couple of guys in Single-A, it is difficult to say one way or the other. If Quintana were a rental, then it might be a more obvious case of overpaying. Yet, because the lefty is on board for as many as three more seasons –- and at a cheap price at that –- it is an investment that coincides exactly with the Cubs at their best.
No one is saying that the Cubs are out of contention in 2017. Since they acquired Quintana, they have won all three of their games. They now find themselves 4.5 games behind Milwaukee and 5.5 games out of the wild card. José Quintana had a crosstown debut to remember, striking out 12 in seven shutout innings. The Cubs are very much still in it.
It’s just that Chicago in 2018 could be as or more dangerous than even last year’s championship squad. The stars are perfectly aligned.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics and salaries are accurate as of July 15th, 2017, and were obtained from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.
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