White Sox fans have been great at buying in to Rick Hahn’s rebuilding effort.
But if there were controversies along the way, they stemmed from the dealing away of two of the best young pitchers in the American League.
Chris Sale and Jose Quintana represented the White Sox in the All-Star Game back in 2016, perhaps as good a 1-2 punch as there was in the Junior Circuit and a dream tandem to throw in a playoff series, if the South Siders could ever get there. But they couldn’t. Not in the state they were in. And so Hahn shifted from win-now mode to rebuilding mode, with the trading away of Sale the move that jumpstarted the whole thing.
Half a year later, Quintana was shipped across town to the win-now Cubs. Fourteen months after that, Quintana faced his old mates for the first time at Guaranteed Rate Field.
The other big trade that’s gone heretofore unmentioned was the Adam Eaton deal, which brought back a trio of pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Lopez got the head-to-head matchup with Quintana on Friday to kick off the second Crosstown series of 2018, and while the Cubs and White Sox couldn’t be in more different spots in terms of competing for this season’s World Series title, it was Lopez who flashed why the White Sox future is so much brighter than their past ever was.
Lopez dominated the Cubs’ offense, the team that still owns the best record in the National League made to look completely incapable by the hard-throwing 24-year-old. He struck out eight batters in a lineup trying desperately to hold off the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central race. After Daniel Murphy led off the game with a solo homer, Lopez held the Cubs to a scattered quartet of hits over seven innings.
"Their pitcher was good. Give him some credit," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He threw the ball really well. I was watching him on video yesterday and even some this morning. He's got good stuff. His last three outings, he went seven, six and seven and he did it again, so a big part of why we didn't look so good was him. He was that good."
Indeed, it was the latest in a string of dominant starts Lopez is putting together to close out his first full major league season. The campaign hasn’t always gone smoothly for him, his ERA still above 4.00 when Friday began, but he’s finishing it off in a way that should have fans real excited for his long-term prospects. In his last five starts, he’s got a pencil-thin 0.79 ERA, a stretch that’s dropped his season ERA from 4.66 to 3.94.
“It’s very important for me,” Lopez said, through a team translator, of closing the season on such a strong note. “I set my goal to finish this season with my ERA below 4.00, and now I know my ERA is below that number. That’s all that I want to do. I want to finish the season strong and finish with my ERA below 4.00.
“When you see all the work that you have put in day in, day out to get that result have shown, you feel very satisfied. Because that's what you work for. You work to get good results. You work to get better and to perform. To be able to do that and to know that you're doing something like that, it's special and you feel good.”
Meanwhile, the White Sox offense did to Quintana what it could never do for him: scored a ton of runs.
Quintana’s recent stretch of high-quality starts came to an end — he entered with a 2.10 ERA in his previous six outings — as his former team touched him up for five runs on nine hits and chased him from the game before the first out of the sixth inning. All in all, the White Sox had one of their best offensive days of the season, pouring it on against the bullpen and finishing with 10 runs on 19 hits.
Quintana remains a very good pitcher, and he could very well help the Cubs to another championship. But instead of having just Sale and Quintana, the White Sox now have five or six or seven guys either here or developing in the minor leagues, Lopez being just one of them. The future will continue to be on display this weekend when Giolito and Carlos Rodon pitch in the second and third games against the Cubs.
Friday’s results are not to say that Lopez is a better pitcher than Quintana now or that he ever will be. But it was probably a little bit of vindication for the White Sox, a sign they made a good decision in pushing the rebuild button. The era of White Sox baseball in which Quintana pitched never ended in a postseason appearance. Hahn & Co. are hoping the era Lopez is pitching in ends in a championship.
Friday, at least, it ended in a win.
Who won the Jose Quintana trade?
It’s still way too early to actually answer that question. But a trade that seemed so beneficial for both the White Sox and Cubs when it was completed last summer seems to have a South Side lean at the moment, even if it’s a very slight one.
That’s not a knock against Quintana, who faced his former team for the first time Friday afternoon. He’s doing his part in the mission the Cubs acquired him to accomplish. A rocky start that afflicted most of the North Side starting rotation means Quintana’s season-long numbers aren’t dazzling, but he’s been excellent as the Cubs’ division race with the Milwaukee Brewers has heated up, with a 2.10 ERA in his last six starts heading into Friday’s Crosstown opener.
They acquired him to help them win another World Series, and he’s pitching well enough as the postseason nears to be a big piece of that equation this October.
But the team that traded Quintana away probably isn’t having second thoughts at the moment. While the return pieces in the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades haven’t exactly hit the big leagues in dominant fashion — the ceilings of Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are all still very high — the two biggest return pieces in the Quintana trade are perhaps the two biggest reasons to be excited about the White Sox future at the moment.
Eloy Jimenez is being discussed as a superstar in waiting. His eventual promotion to the majors was the biggest discussion topic of the season, and though it didn’t end up happening in 2018, it doesn’t figure to be long into the 2019 campaign before he’s playing big league ball.
He lit the minors on fire this season with a .337/.384/.577 slash line and 22 home runs in 108 games split between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. After being promoted to Triple-A, he posted a .355/.399/.597 slash line and 12 homers in 55 games. He’s currently ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the game.
Dylan Cease, meanwhile, was good enough to be named MLB Pipeline’s minor league pitcher of the year. He posted a 2.40 ERA with 160 strikeouts in 23 starts between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. That includes a sparkling 1.72 ERA in 10 starts following a midseason promotion to Double-A. He went to the Futures Game and pitched in the ninth inning on that All-Star stage.
Coming into the season, Cease was maybe the fourth most highly thought of White Sox pitching prospect, trailing Kopech, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning — not to mention big leaguers Giolito and Carlos Rodon. But where the question then was whether Cease could find a place in a crowded rotation of the future, the question now is: Could he lead it? Cease’s magnificent 2018 has sparked thoughts of him being the pitcher with the greatest promise in the organization.
And so that sounds like a pretty good state of the trade for the White Sox. Of course, the win-now Cubs probably feel similarly about their end of the deal, Quintana’s performance of late helping to answer what was a glaring question earlier in the season.
It’s worth repeating that it’s extremely early to be making any definitive statements about the “winner” of this deal. It’s also very early to be able to say with certainty what impact Jimenez and Cease will finally have when they reach the majors. The two most exciting White Sox youngsters at this time last season were Moncada and Kopech, and while the organization still thinks the world of both, fan expectations have shifted as Moncada’s first full big league season has been an up-and-down one and Kopech is days removed from Tommy John surgery that will wipe out his 2019.
In other words, things can change. And fast.
But right now, Jimenez and Cease are arguably the two brightest parts of the White Sox future. There’s plenty of questions to be answered over the coming years, but in the moment, the South Side half of this win-win deal is living up to the billing.