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Theo Epstein Strikes Again: Cubs Acquire Jose Quintana, Put Pressure On Cardinals and Brewers

The Cubs made a big trade on Thursday, beating the rush into the trade market to acquire coveted starting pitcher Jose Quintana from the White Sox.

The durable, consistently good Quintana is a transfusion for the Cubs’ tired and mediocre rotation. He’s just what the Cubs needed. The defending World Series champs have other problems; the anticipated rotation regression isn’t the only reason for their blah 43-45 record. But for the Cubs to shake their lethargy, it begins with the starting pitching.

There’s some pearl clutching going on in Chicago. A crosstown trade between the North Side Cubs and South Side White Sox came as a surprise only because the same-city rivals haven’t hooked up on a trade since exchanging relief pitchers in 2006.

And that was the only surprising aspect of this transaction.

The Cubs gave up four prospects but only two are worth talking about: (1) The 20-year-old outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who is the No. 5 MLB prospect according to Baseball America’s midseason rankings; (2) RH pitcher Dylan Cease the organization’s second-best prospect who is armed with a 100 mph fastball. Both are still at the Class A level; a lot can happen between there and MLB arrival time.

The Cubs aren’t fretting over their team’s outlook for, say, 2021.

They want to win it all for the second year in a row.

There was zero chance of Cubs baseball CEO Theo Epstein sitting around, doing nothing but listening to Pearl Jam as his rotation burned.  The bellicose Epstein is not content to play it safe, nibble around the edges, tweak the roster and settle for a couple of incremental upgrades.

Last summer Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer handed over their top prospect, heralded shortstop Gleyber Torres, to lease Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman for a few months. Soon after the Cubs survived Game 7 in Cleveland to win their first World Series since 1908, Chapman returned to New York to cash in on a free-agent deal with the Yankees.

Quintana is no summer rental.

This was an outstanding deal for the Cubs on a number of fronts:

+ The trade interest in Quintana was intense, with several other teams making a run at the prized lefthander. Epstein didn’t hesitate to win the bidding up front instead of waiting around in case other starting pitchers became available. The Cubs identified Quintana as their top choice, and Epstein was bold. He posted up, and boxed out other GMs. Giving up two elite prospects is expensive, but only for the faint-hearted baseball men or prospect collectors who are more concerned with planning for 2024.

+ After posting the majors’ top starting rotation earned-run average (2.96) in 2016, the weary-armed Cubs went into the 2017 All-Star break with a ballooning 4.66 rotation ERA that ranked 9th in the NL. After mercilessly grinding out more quality starts (100) than any NL rotation last year, the ’17 Cubs are gasping at 13th in the NL this year with only 34 QS.

+ Quintana’s reinforcement is essential because the Cubs’ rotation attrition will only get worse. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey almost certainly will depart after the season. Both can become free agents. Lackey may retire. Jon Lester will be 34 next season. The Cubs already were leaning on Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler to supply starts after losing Kyle Hendricks and Brett Anderson to the DL. Quintana should help immediately. Hendricks (hand tendinitis) hasn’t pitched since early June but should rejoin the rotation after the All-Star break. Anderson isn’t a factor at this point and will be a free agent after the season.

+ Quintana is reasonably young at 28 years old. The Cubs control his contract through 2020. In today’s marketplace Quintana is a bargain at salaries of $8.85 million in 2018, and consecutive option years at a price of $10.5 million and $11 million, respectively. That’s another reason why the Cubs were willing to move their top two prospects.

+ The two option years offer protection. Should Quintana badly lose form, experience a deterioration of endurance or become a significant medical risk, the Cubs can cut ties after the 2018 season. They are covered both ways. If Quintana performs as expected, he’ll be a tremendous asset. If he flops, the Cubs can bail. This is a preposterously team-friendly contract.

+ I’m sure there will be at least some Cardinals and Brewers fans who will sneer at this deal, and insist that the Cubs overpaid, or that Quintana’s current 4.49 ERA is a sign of decline, or that Quintana is overrated, or that the Cubs’ real problem is an underperforming lineup. Whatever.

+ Quintana’s fielding independent ERA is a more accurate 4.01. And according to Baseball Prospectus, Quintana’s “deserved” ERA is 3.94. Quintana’s ERA is 2.70 over his last seven starts; he’s averaged 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings during this stretch, and has held opponents to a .622 OPS. Quintana’s strand rate is on the low side at 70.6 percent, an indicator of bad-luck randomness. His walk rate is a little higher than normal, and his HR/Fly rate is a fluky at 12.8 percent. But Quintana is tied for 17th among MLB starters with 2.0 WAR, which puts him right there with the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez (2.1 WAR.) The ZiPS projection has Quintana finishing the season with 4.0 WAR, and that’s terrific for a starting pitcher.

+ Since 2013, Quintana has posted four consecutive seasons of 200+ innings, and is on track to throw about 190 innings this season.

+ Over the last four-plus seasons, Quintana is tied for sixth among MLB starters with 20.1 WAR, has a 3.48 ERA, and ranks 8th for most innings. Since the start of last season Quintana ranks fifth among big-league starters with 5.8 WAR.

The White Sox impressively continue to stock their overdue reconstruction project with elite prospects. By auctioning off LH starter Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton last offseason, and cashing in on Quintana now, the White Sox have eight of the top 100 prospects in baseball.

One is outfielder Luis Robert; the White Sox outbid the Cardinals to land the five-tool Cuban prodigy who was touted as the best available international prospect.

So what does this mean for the Brewers and the Cardinals in the NL Central race?

Quintana should be good for about two or three extra wins for the Cubs.

The Brewers are on the prowl for rotation help, and have plenty of prospects to dangle. But Milwaukee GM David Stearns is unlikely to come up with a starter that can match the Quintana addition.

As for the Cardinals … we’ll wait and see what they do between now and the July 31 deadline. As we know, the pragmatic Cardinals almost always make moves based on their needs — and carefully and cautiously assess the cost of potential trades.

The Cardinals weren’t in the hunting party for Quintana.

Sure, he would enhance any rotation but the Cards’ stated priority is finding a middle-lineup bat.

Under team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., baseball president John Mozeliak and now GM Michael Girsch, the Cardinals’ official position is this: they don’t worry about competitors’ moves. St. Louis management makes moves based on what’s best for the Cardinals.

As DeWitt and Mozeliak have always told us in recent years their goal is to be competitive every year. They want to avoid becoming overheated and making short-term moves that will earthquake their future.

The philosophy hasn’t changed, and a long line of success backs them up.

Since Mozeliak became GM in 2008, the Cardinals are tied for second in MLB (and tied with the Dodgers for first in the NL) in regular-season wins. And the team has competed in more postseason games than any MLB team over that time, with only the Giants winning more postseason games.

It’s also true that the Cards’ extended run success has been disrupted and threatened.

Fans appear to be restless and frustrated. It isn’t easy for customers to keep turning out at Busch Stadium for 3-million-plus home attendance each year, and watching their beloved team stink in the basic fundamentals. It isn’t east for the BFIB to see their franchise get bypassed, and upstaged, by the formerly hopeless and hapless Cubs.

The Cardinals have lost ground over the last two years, ranking 11th in MLB with a .516 winning percentage. This team is in an obvious transition, trying to reestablish firm footing on the attempted climb back to dominance. It’s been a bumpy trip so far.

If the Cardinals are serious about erasing a deficit and winning the NL Central, the Cub have just made the challenge more difficult by pulling in Quintana to suture their rotation. And don’t assume that Epstein is done dealing.

The pressure is on.

Not that the Cardinals will acknowledge feeling it.

But the pressure is being turned up.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie