Maybe José Quintana will be as good as it gets for the Cubs at the trade deadline this year.
It worked once, when the languishing Cubs got a boost from the left-hander in that since-criticized trade with the White Sox that sent Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease to the White Sox in 2017.
And Quintana certainly looked good in his season debut Tuesday night in Detroit after missing nearly half of this short pandemic season because of a thumb injury.
But the point isn’t so much whether Quintana answers all the questions the Cubs have on their roster as they hit the midway point Wednesday in a position of strength in the NL Central.
It’s whether any good, reliable answers are even available between now and Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline for making trades this year.
The Cubs are making no secret that they’ll look to add pitching. Team president Theo Epstein said finding more help for the bullpen against left-handed bats is a priority.
But in a market with few certain sellers (Red Sox, Pirates, Royals, Tigers and maybe the Angels), the Cubs are at least in a seller’s market for pitching that’s universally in need with heavyweights from New York to Atlanta to California in the bidding — some with more apparent player capital to work with, if not more willingness to accept salary costs.
Cubs manager David Ross said he doesn’t even know whether he should expect additions at the deadline under the circumstances, even with a first-place club and a historically aggressive front office.
“It’s just a really weird season,” Ross said. “It doesn’t even feel like we’re almost at that point, to be honest with you. It’s crazy to think that way and making a trade on a guy that might just be off to a good couple-week start, whether it’s a bat or an arm or a defensive piece.
“It’s a lot of unknowns and uncertainty in that.”
A few of the questions, obstacles and considerations facing the Cubs at this year’s deadline:
— Only players on teams’ 60-man player pools are eligible to be traded this year. Teams can get around that by including other prospects as players to be named later. But those players are not competing or being scouted this year, which makes them less reliable trading chips in a best-case scenario and potentially more so when it comes to a Cubs system that is not considered strong.
It might be worth noting that the Cubs have three of their top 10 prospects from the lower minors in their 60-man pool at alternate-site South Bend, including top pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez.
— It’s anything but certain how willing the Cubs are to take on any additional salary, much less even a prorated amount of a significant contract, given the steep COVID-19 related financial losses the industry is experiencing and the uncertain projections for 2021.
“Just about every team in the industry, maybe ever team in the sports world, is over budget in the big picture, when you look at what’s happened to revenues,” said Epstein, who expects almost any trade scenario to be subject to discussions involving ownership.
And the idea of adding player salary within days of notifying a large number of player development and scouting staff that their jobs are being cut after the season is at least bad optics.
— Can they effectively compete with the Yankees, Braves and others for the better quality pitchers who might be available, and depending on what’s available for a 26-game stretch and possible playoffs, how sure can they be that they’re improving their team for what they might have to give up? The Phillies already jumped the market to add two pitchers from the Red Sox.
“Obviously, adding pitching and adding left-handed pitching especially is always something that has come up every year I’ve been with the Cubs at the deadline,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Obviously, getting a good look at Quintana here and how we want things [in the rotation and bullpen] to shape up will play into that.
“But we obviously trust the guys we have. We like where we’ve gotten to at this point and we’re just going to keep focused on that for right now.”
— What about the potential health risk of letting somebody from the outside into a team bubble that has been remarkably effective at preventing positive COVID-19 tests?
“That’s always going to be an interesting dynamic we have to juggle,” said Hottovy, who suffered through severe symptoms during a monthlong bout with the virus before summer training camps opened.
But he points out it’s already something they’ve juggled just in the process of players going up and down between the Chicago bubble and South Bend alternate-site bubble.
“I don’t foresee anybody potentially coming in and having issues with how we do things,” Hottovy said, echoing Ross.
“But,” he added, “we’re really focused on the guys we have here for right now and how we can get better.”
First place with Yu Darvish pitching like an ace and Quintana just getting started isn’t a bad place to start the second half.
Regardless of what kind of tweaking and depth additions the front office pulls off by Monday, that might be as good as it gets in a short, strange, historic season.