During the 2017 All-Star break, the Cubs and White Sox did something they don’t often do: They made a trade.
The deal was a blockbuster at the time, Jose Quintana going to the North Side in exchange for a package of prospects headlined by Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, who became the two newest stars of the South Side rebuilding project. In the moment, it was lauded as a trade that benefited both sides, something all good trades are supposed to do.
But is that how things have worked out?
A trade such as this one has sprawling consequences. Two years later, those consequences are becoming more clear. The North Siders are still contending for championships, and the South Siders are still waiting to do so. But how did that trade change things? And how could it still change things for years to come?
As the Cubs and White Sox meet for the first of two brief, two-game sets this summer, here’s a look at where that trade as led both teams.
Was the trade worth it at the time?
Tony: Was it worth it for the Cubs to trade for Jose Quintana? Yes. A resounding yes.
Was it worth it for the Cubs to give up arguably their top prospects in Jimenez and Cease for Quintana? That's a question with a much more complex answer.
Remember, the 2017 Cubs "cruised" into the All-Star Break with a 43-45 record in a visible hangover from the epic 2016 World Series run. When Theo Epstein's front office traded for Quintana, it woke the team up from that slumber — serving as a big Pedialyte and handful of aspirin for the hungover Cubs.
The Crosstown trade gave the Cubs a shot in the arm and they proceeded to rattle off six straight victories to begin the second half. They won nearly two-thirds of their games after the All-Star Break (49-25) and made it all the way to the NLCS before they ran out of gas against the high-powered Dodgers.
So 2017 was a clear win for the Cubs in the trade, but the Quintana acquisition was for more than just that one half-season. That's why they gave up their top two prospects — to fill a hole in the rotation for years to come.
Before the deal, the Cubs had only two starters they could pencil into the 2018 rotation: Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. In Quintana, they not only filled a major hole on the 2017 starting staff (remember, Eddie Butler was the Cubs' fifth starter for most of the first half that year), but they were also getting a 28-year-old pitcher who was under control for another three seasons after 2017 at a very team-friendly price.
Sure, ideally you'd get a potential ace or frontline starter when you give up your top two prospects, but there was also some hope at the time that there was still another level for Quintana to reach. And for a Cubs team in win-now mode and right in the midst of their championship window, it made far more sense for the club to improve the big league roster for years to come than to hold onto prospects that might or might not pan out.
Vinnie: For the White Sox, absolutely.
Rick Hahn’s front office made the decision to rebuild months earlier, and the process got a rocket-fueled jump start from the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades, which netted the White Sox, among others, Michael Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. The Quintana trade was the third such deal that brought back some blinding minor league star power in Jimenez and Cease.
For a team looking to accumulate as much potential impact talent as possible, this was a dream return, even for a pitcher who was coming off an All-Star season in 2016.
Yes, Quintana was a young, controllable, affordable starting pitcher, the kind of player that certainly could have played a long-term role for the White Sox. But Hahn decided to cash in, and boy did he. Jimenez and Cease projected to be big-time major league contributors, and that’s exactly what a rebuilding team could’ve asked for.
Have the teams gotten what they wanted?
Tony: In 2017, yes, the Cubs were very happy with the results. Not only did Quintana's arrival boost the entire clubhouse, but he performed admirably on the mound in 14 second-half starts, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 98 strikeouts in 84.1 innings.
But Quintana hasn't quite reached that same level in the season-and-a-half since.
The veteran southpaw endured a disappointing 2018 season by most standards, but still made 32 starts and pitched so well against the Brewers, the Cubs lined him up to face Milwaukee with the division on the line in Game 163 at Wrigley Field.
This year, Quintana has been solid and ranks behind only Kyle Hendricks and Cole Hamels in WAR on the Cubs pitching staff. But nobody would call him the ace and in a perfect world, he probably lines up as the team's fifth starter.
There's a lot of value in that — if Quintana truly is a "No. 5 starter," he ranks among the best in the game in that department — and for a team that has had to get creative with the budget, a $10.5 million salary is awfully friendly for a reliable, veteran arm.
Had they not acquired Quintana nearly two years ago, the Cubs would've had to throw even more money to fill rotation holes over the last two winters, and that could've spelled even more trouble. Both rotation additions from the 2018 offseason — Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood — have had trouble staying *in* the rotation since signing, either because of injury or ineffectiveness.
Sure, it would be awfully nice for Cubs fans to still have Jimenez and Cease to salivate over in the farm system and as potential midseason call-ups this year to augment the big league roster. But there's no telling either player would've remained with the team, as Epstein still might have dealt both guys even if the Quintana trade didn't come to fruition.
Quintana is still only 30 and under team control for $11.5 million next year, which is a steal of a price tag given the cost of pitching nowadays.
Had Quintana been able to maintain that 2017 half-season production, it would be hard to argue anything other than the fact that the trade was a "win" from the Cubs' end. I'd still classify it that way, but there's also certainly a level of disappointment that Quintana is still only a back-of-the-rotation starter given that prospect cost.
Vinnie: Surely the White Sox have.
Jimenez is finally a major leaguer, though he would have been much sooner if fans got their way in 2018. But the White Sox inked Jimenez to a lengthy contract before the start of this season, and he’s spent the entire campaign getting his first taste of the big leagues. It hasn’t been all sunshine and lollipops, as Jimenez started slow at the plate and had some glaring miscues in left field. He spent an extended period of time on the injured list but has been swinging a much hotter bat of late.
He finally homered on the South Side last week and followed that up with a two-homer game against the Yankees (his second of the season after homering twice in one contest in The Bronx). Jimenez went 7-for-21 with six extra-base hits and three walks on the just completed six-game homestand and is as hot as he’s been this year heading into the first Crosstown series at Wrigley Field.
Cease has yet to make his big league debut, but his timeline is lining up perfectly with a White Sox contention window that seems set to start opening in 2020. Last season, he was MLB Pipeline’s pick for minor league pitcher of the year after he posted a 2.40 ERA with 160 strikeouts in 23 starts between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham.
He got off to a terrific start this season at Triple-A Charlotte, though he’s hit a few bumps in the road of late, with an ERA north of 4.00 at the moment. Still, he’s ranked as one of the best minor league pitchers in the game and figures to be promoted relatively soon.
Both guys’ performance to this point, particularly Cease’s emergence as a potential star in the making last year, have the White Sox thrilled about their end of the Quintana trade. It wouldn’t be overstating things to suggest they’ve gotten everything they’ve wanted and more to this point.
How has the trade led to the teams’ current situations?
Vinnie: The White Sox rebuilding project has gained a ton of momentum in just the last few months.
While the future has looked consistently bright since the Sale, Eaton and Quintana trades were made, the team lost a combined 195 games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. But things are starting to ramp up, with a bunch of positives at the big league level this season. Lucas Giolito has been a Cy Young candidate to this point, Tim Anderson owns one of the highest batting averages in the American League, Yoan Moncada is significantly improved from his disappointing campaign a year ago, and James McCann has been a shockingly great find at catcher. Meanwhile, Zack Collins is getting promoted, Luis Robert is flourishing in the minor leagues, and power-hitting first baseman Andrew Vaughn just joined the rebuild as the No. 3 pick in the draft.
And that’s without even mentioning Jimenez and Cease, who are two of the biggest players in this whole thing. Jimenez’s recent stretch of good fortune has added fuel to the fire that this thing is gaining steam. Cease’s expected promotion later this summer is sure to generate a ton of excitement — and provide a ton of hope — on the South Side.
Throw in the expected returns of Kopech and Dane Dunning next season, once the recoveries from their Tommy John surgeries are complete, as well as the additions of Nick Madrigal and Robert to the big league roster at some point in 2020, and that’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle coming together.
The White Sox might not find themselves in a playoff race at the end of the 2019 season, but the window could very realistically open next year. And whether that’s on time or earlier than expected, it couldn’t have happened without the Quintana trade. By Opening Day 2020, Jimenez will have spent an entire season as the White Sox everyday left fielder, and Cease will be a part of a promising young starting rotation.
Tony: The Cubs haven't won a World Series with Quintana on the roster (obviously), but that's not to say it's his fault. At no point during his Cubs tenure has Quintana been the weak link on this team.
In fact, he's brought a ton of stability to the rotation the last couple years. This season, Jon Lester has already had an injured list stint, and now Hendricks is on the shelf while battling shoulder inflammation. Darvish had a brilliant outing in L.A. over the weekend and has looked better of late, but he still hasn't turned in the type of consistency or production the Cubs hoped for when they signed him to a $126 million free-agent deal.
Meanwhile, Quintana displayed his own maddening ups-and-downs in his Sunday night start against the Dodgers. After getting two quick outs in the first inning, he gave up a single and then started to nibble, eventually walking three straight batters to force in a run and put his team in an early hole. But then he was very efficient in the four innings that followed before starting to get lit up when facing the Dodgers' lineup for a third time. It wasn't an amazing outing, but Quintana deserves credit for moving past that tough first inning and keeping his team in the game against the NL's best club.
Throughout much of the first half of 2019, the Cubs' rotation has looked like the strength of the club, as Joe Maddon called it the "engine that's gonna drive the vehicle." Quintana is a huge part of that and right now, it looks like a no-brainer for the Cubs to pick up his $11.5 million team option for 2020.
How has the trade impacted other additions?
Tony: Obviously if the Cubs hadn't traded Jimenez and Cease, Epstein's front office would've had two blue-chip prospects to include in any other potential deals. But they also would've had a hole to fill in the 2017 and 2018 rotations and would've been forced to either add another starter for 2019 or else stick with Chatwood or Mike Montgomery in the rotation.
Again, Quintana hasn't been an All-Star-caliber pitcher on the North Side, but the stability and reliability he's provided the rotation has been huge.
Given the organization's lack of success at developing pitching in the farm system and some swings and misses in free agency, it's hard to imagine where this team would be right now — and over the last couple seasons — without Quintana.
Vinnie: It’s hard to say with the White Sox, considering they’ve never not been rebuilding since executing the trade. Heck, they’ve rarely been above .500. The White Sox don’t figure to need a left fielder for a long time. If Cease is really impressive when he reaches the big leagues, perhaps that impacts Hahn’s plans to potentially add starting pitching this winter.
Obviously, last offseason’s pursuit of Manny Machado was done with the intent of adding another big bat to Jimenez's in the lineup, to add another star to this rebuilding process and help open that contention window. Jimenez’s place on the roster didn’t necessarily make it OK that Machado spurned the White Sox for the San Diego Padres. But Hahn and Rick Renteria said multiple times throughout the offseason that they believed Jimenez could blossom into the type of hitter that Machado is, that Bryce Harper is. Basically, they were saying they envisioned him being in that elite class of offensive superstars.
Again, it doesn’t mean the White Sox couldn’t have used Machado. But for many fans who saw the Machado sweepstakes as the lone chance to add a bat of that caliber, perhaps the White Sox already had one in Jimenez.
What does the trade still mean for the teams’ futures?
Vinnie: For the White Sox, everything. The South Siders have spent the last two and a half years focusing on the long-term picture, one that had them competing for championships on an annual basis. Given all the good news of late and the tons of talent still developing, that goal is looking more and more realistic every day. And Jimenez and Cease are key figures in why.
That being said, nothing’s happened yet. These players need to pan out, and a championship roster needs to come together in order for the rebuild to ever be declared a success. Jimenez and Cease have provided exciting glimpses into the future, but Jimenez has a grand total of 46 major league games under his belt, while Cease has zero. A lot can happen over the next few years. Quintana has been to two more postseasons in two years with the Cubs than he went to in his time with the White Sox.
Still, the White Sox got what they feel is a middle-of-the-order bat and a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in this trade, and given their rebuilding status, they’d probably do it again 100 times out of 100. Those are two huge pieces to Hahn’s long-term vision. And while he needs them to reach their potential to see that vision become reality, perhaps only Kopech will have as much influence on that vision becoming reality than these two. This was a move made for the 10 years that followed, and that future is looking very bright at the moment.
Tony: For the Cubs, the trade was all about the present championship window. That's still open through at least 2021, but overall, they made this move to acquire the pitching help they badly needed in the present and the short term. It's clear Quintana has provided that — he's racked up 5.3 WAR over 342.1 innings and 60 games started during his Cubs tenure.
Jimenez and Cease certainly look to have a bright future, but how long will it take to achieve that potential? Given the fact they've spent every day in contention since the trade, the Cubs couldn't afford to have the patience the White Sox have had with the two young players. As Vinnie said, Jimenez has been better of late, but he still has only a .301 on-base percentage and has been worth 0.2 WAR. And where would the Cubs find time for him to play everyday at the big league level?
Even if Jimenez and Cease turn into stars, that doesn't change the fact that Quintana has provided a lot of value to the Cubs when they needed it most. Jimenez and Cease making the 2020 All-Star team does nothing to help the 2017, 2018 or 2019 Cubs.
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