Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy chuckled when asked about the Cubs’ season forecast if they get José Quintana back from a thumb injury.
“We could potentially get Q at the (trade) deadline again this year,” he said Monday, “and kind of give us the jolt we need at that time.”
The Cubs haven’t yet set a probable return date for Quintana. It’s too early in his recovery process from a dishwashing accident that cut his left thumb so deep he needed microscopic surgery to repair a sensory nerve. He had the surgery two and a half weeks ago. He began throwing again four days ago.
But in a shortened season, where the cliché of “every game counts” is true from the get-go, the Cubs’ chances at a deep playoff run would look a lot better with Quintana healthy. Especially after the Cubs’ exhibition game against the White Sox Monday, when Yu Darvish allowed five runs before recording an out.
Quintana has progressed from throwing 60 feet on flat ground on the first day of his throwing program to up to 90 feet, according to Hottovy. The left-hander still has about a week to 10 days until he throws off a mound.
“We’ve got to get a couple of good long-toss days in, where his arm strength is built up,” Hottovy said. “… But it could speed up quickly if he gets out to 120 feet and has no issues, or it could go the other way.”
Quintana’s focus now is testing how the ball feels coming out of his hand – according to Hottovy, the hand itself “doesn’t look pretty.” And because of the nature of the injury, the Cubs will continue monitoring the sensation in Quintana's hand even once he starts throwing off the mound.
“All reports are, he’s feeling good,” Hottovy said.
The Cubs’ starting pitching depth, however, is as concerning as ever. Kyle Hendricks has been a bright spot after being named the Opening Day starter and stretching out to 83 pitches in the Cubs' exhibition loss to the White Sox on Sunday.
Then on Monday, Darvish allowed five runs in the first inning. Thanks to exhibition rules, the Cubs were able to call the inning early, with only two outs. Darvish had already thrown 29 pitches. He was much more efficient after that, but the first inning was an obvious stain on the outing.
Meanwhile, Lester is on a slower schedule than Hendricks or Darvish. He and Alec Mills will form a piggyback tandem for Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Twins. Cubs manager David Ross said he doesn’t expect that setup to carry into the season. But the Cubs will still have to rely on their bullpen in middle innings, at least to start the season.
The trade deadline is over a month away, and the Cubs could already use a boost from Quintana.
The first time the Cubs added Quintana around the deadline – in 2017 the Cubs traded four prospects, including Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, to the White Sox for the southpaw – he immediately set expectations high.
Quintana threw seven scoreless innings at Baltimore, striking out 12, to begin his Cubs tenure. Then to end the season, the Cubs won each of Quintana’s last six starts.
The team surely doesn't expect that kind of performance from Quintana whenever he does return. The lefty’s ERA has been over 4.0 for the past two seasons.
“Two of his best stretches last year,” Hottovy said, “were when Lester had the hamstring he was dealing with and when Kyle was dealing with his shoulder stuff. When you have a guy who’s as consistent as him and can step up when the team needs you the most, those are the guys you love having back.”
But the Cubs won’t get too excited for his return yet.
Said Hottovy: “We obviously understand the road he has to take to get back to that point.”