Jose Quintana

Up close, White Sox see same big potential Cubs forecasted for Dylan Cease

capture.png

Up close, White Sox see same big potential Cubs forecasted for Dylan Cease

The Cubs made the Jose Quintana deal knowing it would have been more difficult to give up Dylan Cease if he was already performing at the Double-A level, and that the White Sox organization would be a good place to continue his education as a young pitcher.

While Eloy Jimenez keeps drawing ridiculous comparisons – the running total now includes Kris Bryant, Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz – Cease is more than just the other name prospect from the deal that shocked the baseball world during the All-Star break.

“We still project him as a starter,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said during this week’s GM meetings in Florida. “He certainly has the stuff where it’s easy to envision him as a potential dominant reliever. But to this point – for the foreseeable future – we deal with the starting and continue to develop him as a potential front-end arm.”

The Theo Epstein regime still hasn’t developed an impact homegrown pitcher, but that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from winning 292 games, six playoff rounds and a World Series title across the last three seasons, while still being in a strong position to win the National League Central again in 2018.

Without Quintana and his affordable contract that can run through 2020, Epstein’s front office might have been looking at the daunting possibility of trying to acquire three starting pitchers this winter.

While surveying a farm system in the middle of a natural downturn, Baseball America ranked seven pitchers on its top-10 list of prospects from the Cubs organization: Adbert Alzolay, Jose Albertos, Alex Lange, Oscar De La Cruz, Brendon Little, Thomas Hatch and Jen-Ho Tseng.

So far, only Alzolay, an Arizona Fall League Fall Star with seven starts for Double-A Tennessee on his resume, and Tseng, who made his big-league debut in September, have pitched above the A-ball level.

Cease – who went 0-8 with a 3.89 ERA for Class-A Kannapolis in his first nine starts in the White Sox system – has a 100-mph fastball and a big curveball and won’t turn 22 until next month. That stuff allowed Cease to pile up 126 strikeouts against 44 walks in 93.1 innings this year, putting him in the wave that includes Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen.

“Ideally, we have a lot of guys we project to be part of the future, very good, championship-caliber rotation,” Hahn said. “In an ideal world, there’s not going to be room at the inn for all of them. You only have five in that rotation and some of these guys will wind up in the bullpen. In reality, as players develop, you’re going to see some attrition.”

One spot after the White Sox grabbed Carlos Rodon with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, the Cubs did Kyle Schwarber’s below-slot deal, using part of the savings to buy out Cease’s commitment to Vanderbilt University ($1.5 million bonus for a sixth-rounder) and supervise his recovery from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Cease was never going to be on the fast track to Wrigley Field, and now the White Sox hope he can be part of the foundation on the South Side, where it’s easier to sell a rebuild after watching the Cubs and Houston Astros become World Series champions.

“It doesn’t change really for us internally in terms of our commitment or focus or our plan or our timeline or anything along those lines,” Hahn said. “I do think, perhaps, it helps the fan base understand a little bit about what the process looks like, where other teams have been and how long the path they took to get to the ultimate goal of winning a World Series (was). In Chicago, many fans saw it firsthand with the Cubs.

“There are certainly more and more examples in the game over the last several years to help sort of show fans the path and justification for what we’re (doing).”

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

jose_quintana_deal_that_changed_chicago_baseball_forever.jpg
AP

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

ORLANDO, Fla. – White Sox general manager Rick Hahn didn’t really pay attention to how Jose Quintana performed for the Cubs in the playoffs, the opportunity he desperately wanted during those lost seasons on the South Side.

“Not so much,” Hahn said. “I saw a little bit of it here and there, but my kids are probably the better ones to ask about how he did in the postseason than me.”

Hahn’s kids weren’t made available to the reporters staking out the lobby this week at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and the White Sox executive wasn’t the same popular media target he’d been during last year’s GM meetings.       

The Quintana trade that shocked the baseball world during the All-Star break changed everything for the Cubs and White Sox, how the two franchises will approach the rest of the offseason after checking out of this resort hotel on Wednesday and leaving Florida. It could also frame the next three, five, maybe even 10 years of Chicago baseball.

Getting top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease from the Cubs – on top of the returns for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak and Melky Cabrera – positioned the White Sox as a team that can be patient and opportunistic and keep cultivating one of the industry’s best farm systems and methodically building a perennial contender.  

“I had one GM say something to me recently about being cautious for doing deals – with his tongue in cheek – because of how well we did,” Hahn said. “I said: ‘All I did was notice former White Sox players all over my TV screen in October.’ So it works both ways.”

Imagine how desperate the Cubs would feel trying to replace 60 percent of their rotation – without the financial flexibility created by Quintana’s club-friendly contract.

Imagine how a front office that fired multiple coaches from a staff that went to a third straight National League Championship Series might react to not playing in October.   

Imagine how much heat manager Joe Maddon would be feeling if Quintana hadn’t come to the rescue and stabilized the team and energized the clubhouse.

“It was well worth it,” Epstein said. “Without Jose Quintana, I don’t think we make the playoffs, honestly, (after) seeing what happened to our starting rotation. Jonny Lester went down. Jake Arrieta went down. ‘Q’ was a consistent performer for us in the second half. He pitched really well in two of the three playoff games.

“The bottom line: I don’t think we make the playoffs without him. And the biggest factor in that deal was not even 2017. It was 2018, ’19 and ’20 and solidifying a pitching staff and putting us in a position to be able to make a couple more moves and have a really outstanding starting rotation.”  

This is the price to acquire pitching: Hahn played along with a question that compared Jimenez to David Ortiz and suggested he could become the Big Papi-like presence that turned the Boston Red Sox into World Series champions in 2004, 2007 and 2013.  

“That’s possible,” Hahn said. “I don’t like putting too big a name on guys. Let him be the first Eloy Jimenez instead of the next David Ortiz. That said, if he could match him from a ring standpoint, that would be a positive. It would be a nice step or standard to emulate going forward.”

One year later, the GM meetings ended with the White Sox moving in the right direction, no more wondering if they would actually go through with a teardown, now setting their sights on what the Cubs have become on the North Side.

“Honestly, I didn’t watch a ton of the postseason,” Hahn said. “I get a little uneasy watching other teams perform when we’ve been eliminated. But certainly it was difficult to turn on a game and not see a former White Sox player out there doing well and contributing. If anything, that made us hungrier for our fans to experience it with quality players in our uniform.

“I’m certainly happy for the players that were out there and got that opportunity. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that you also think about the missed opportunity where we didn’t have the chance to have them in the postseason while they played for us.”

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

1101_jon_lester.jpg
USA TODAY

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

Jon Lester could never pick up a baseball again and the Cubs would still be satisfied with their $155 million investment. The parade down Michigan Avenue will always be worth it.

But 362 days later, Lester isn’t ready to spend all his time hunting in Georgia and playing celebrity golf events. The Cubs still absolutely need Lester’s presence and credibility. Not to prove that this franchise is serious about winning — the way his decision to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season accelerated the rebuild — but to again anchor a rotation that might be at its most vulnerable point since those summers of flip deals.

Super-agent Scott Boras wants to keep all big-market teams in play for leverage — and Jake Arrieta is too savvy to completely rule out a return — but signs point to the Cy Young Award winner getting his nine-figure megadeal somewhere else. The expectation is John Lackey will retire and become the anti-David Ross, only popping up in Twitter photos when his family goes trick-or-treating with the Arrietas and Tommy La Stella. The farm system isn’t producing internal solutions anytime soon.

That leaves Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and two giant question marks for this winter, the Cubs likely pursuing one free-agent starter (Alex Cobb?) and trading from their surplus of hitters (Ian Happ?) to get a young pitcher and continue the momentum from three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“Everybody involved has done nothing but deliver on their promises to me when I signed here,” Lester said, crediting by name chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon after the Los Angeles Dodgers dismantled the Cubs in the NLCS.

“I know you guys are probably sick of me by now, but I’ve got a guaranteed three more to go, so suck on that one,” Lester said, cracking up the reporters surrounding his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “Hopefully, in those next three years, we’re able to maybe win another one or two. That’s up to these younger guys to carry my load on that one.”

Lester has credited Hendricks for the unmatched preparation that made him the Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals in the first round of the playoffs, and raved about Quintana’s work ethic and personality since getting traded from the White Sox during the All-Star break.

But even with the blockbuster Quintana deal, the Cubs are still bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation, at a time when Lester is about to turn 34 and coming off a season where he put up his lowest number of innings (180.2) since 2007 (when he was still recovering from a cancer diagnosis and lymphoma treatments). Lester’s 4.33 ERA was almost exactly the league average and his trip to the disabled list in the middle of August/early September was his first since 2011.

“Halfway through, I think we’re really happy with the first half of that deal,” Epstein said. “It’s been a really nice success for him and for us. That’s really the half of the deal that’s the key when you make those kinds of deals. If you don’t get return on the first half, you’re probably in trouble.

“You better get production in the first half of those deals — or it’s going to end up being a big mistake.”

The Cubs hope Lester can model Andy Pettitte, the left-handed pitcher he’s been compared to since coming up with the Boston Red Sox. Pettitte got some, uh, help, admitting to using human growth hormone while recovering from an elbow injury in 2002, his reputation stained in the Mitchell Report. But the overall picture of Pettitte is someone who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees, accounted for 276-plus innings in the playoffs and started 30 times during his age-41 season.

No matter what happens from here, Lester has been worth every penny. No one else in the big leagues has made at least 30 starts in each of the last 10 seasons. He essentially averaged a strikeout per inning this season and is only a year removed from finishing second in the NL Cy Young vote.

“In Jon’s case, look, he still has all the characteristics that we think make him an effective pitcher and a reliable bet going forward,” Epstein said, “because his mechanics are still sound. His arm — he had a little bit of shoulder fatigue — but bounced back from that. Knock on wood, he’s avoided any kind of significant injury.

“He’s shown the ability to pitch — and pitch effectively —  without his best stuff on certain days when he doesn’t have it. He had a few uncharacteristic really rough outings this year and was prone to the long ball more than normal.

“But besides that, he had some really nice stretches where he was sort of everything we hoped he could be. We’re counting on him to be a really big part of our pitching staff moving forward.”

The bottom line is that Lester has guts and the Cubs have faith that he will somehow figure out a way to compete. He shut down Washington for six innings in Game 2, leaving with a 2-1 lead before a bullpen meltdown at Nationals Park. He retired the first 10 Washington hitters he faced as a Game 4 reliever at Wrigley Field, a sign of how much the Cubs wanted to win that day. Three days later, he exited a 1-1 NLCS game at Dodger Stadium in the fifth inning, which will be remembered for Justin Turner’s three-run walk-off homer against Lackey.

This will be an opportunity for Lester to show even more of his personality, take on a more vocal leadership role, work with a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) and maybe even cement his spot in the Hall of Fame with another World Series run.

“I don’t really care what people say about me on the field,” Lester said. “I may be an a------. I may show my emotions too much. I might show up the umpire too many times. I may yell at hitters. I don’t really care. But in this clubhouse — with my guys and my team — that’s what drives me.

“When I walk away from this game — just like if John Lackey walks away — (I want) everybody in this clubhouse (to) say the exact same thing: ‘That sumb---- had our back.’

“At the end of the day, man, the stats and all that other BS, that’s great. But that’s what I want. That’s what I want my guys to say about me.”