Jose Quintana

Why Cubs could look to move José Quintana, a rumored potential trade candidate

Why Cubs could look to move José Quintana, a rumored potential trade candidate

Sunday, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported upwards of seven teams are still seeking starting pitching this winter, naming those “heard” to be on the market and those who “speculatively” could be.

Cubs starter José Quintana fell into Heyman’s second category. This isn’t to say Quintana is definitively on the market, but with Heyman’s speculation in mind, the Cubs dealing the 30-year-old lefty is realistic.

The Cubs picked up Quintana’s $11.5 million option for 2020 — the last year of his contract. That salary is very reasonable for a durable arm (30+ starts in seven straight seasons), but Quintana hasn’t been the same pitcher on the North Side as he was with the crosstown White Sox from 2012-17.

-Quintana with White Sox: 172 games (169 starts), 3.51 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 3.53 FIP
-Quintana with Cubs: 78 games (77 starts), 4.23 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.95 FIP

Granted, Quintana hasn’t been a bust with the Cubs, but he’s been up-and-down, showing flashes of brilliance (2.02 ERA in six August starts last season) while also struggling immensely (11.09 ERA in five September starts).

The Cubs could do a lot worse than Quintana as their fourth starter. However, based on their lack of activity in free agency so far this offseason, it’s evident they’re looking to get under MLB’s $208 million luxury tax threshold for 2020.

Spotrac projects the Cubs’ 2020 payroll to be a little more than $211 million. They’ll have to shed about $4 million to get under the threshold — more to address other needs on the roster.

Trading Quintana would get the Cubs' payroll under $208 million. It’d also open up another hole on the roster, as they’d have to replace him in the rotation. They could face that reality a year from now anyway, though.

Quintana will be 32 in 2021, and considering how he’s fared with the Cubs, they may not seek an extension with him. If that’s the case, why not move Quintana this winter to a) clear payroll and b) get something in return before they let him walk as a free agent?

Perhaps the Cubs can address one of their other roster needs — bullpen, center field/second base upgrade — in a Quintana deal. They won’t be offered elite prospects, but maybe they can net a solid player to boost the farm system.

Moving Quintana also would allow the Cubs to give Adbert Alzolay and/or Alec Mills a chance to take hold of a rotation spot next season. With Quintana on the roster, only one rotation spot is vacant — and the Cubs may opt to fill it with Tyler Chatwood. At some point, the Cubs have to give their young arms a chance in the rotation.

The Cubs must weigh short-term success vs. the long-term outlook of the franchise this offseason. If Quintana isn’t in their plans after 2020, trading him now would make a lot of sense.

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Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

SAN DIEGO — Two offseasons ago, the Cubs inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run.

They paid $126 million over six years.

This offseason, the Nationals inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run. 

They paid $245 million over seven years.

A lot has changed in the last two winters.

Now, this isn't an argument about which pitcher was better at the time of their signing — Yu Darvish or Stephen Strasburg. Wherever you fall in that debate, there's no denying they're at least comparable in terms of talent and production. 

Strasburg's deal also makes the Darvish contract look like a relative bargain, as the Cubs locked down their righty for roughly half the amount the Nationals paid.

It's funny we're even at the point in Darvish's tenure that we're now looking at his megadeal like a "bargain" after it looked destined for "bust" territory as recently as earlier this year. 

Darvish's first year in Chicago was a disaster, as he dealt with a bone bruise in his forearm and managed to make only 8 starts with a 4.95 ERA in those 40 innings. But he came to camp last spring in great shape physically and mentally, bonding with his teammates on a level he did not in 2018 and flashing his sense of humor from Day 1 (which has continued this offseason on social media).

That didn't immediately translate into results, as Darvish had a 5.01 ERA entering the All-Star Break after battling bouts of wildness and longball-itis. 

Then he flipped a switch, asking for the ball in the first game of the second half and going on to become one of the top pitchers in all of baseball after the All-Star Game with a 2.76 ERA and 118 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 81.2 innings. 

"The way Darvish pitched the second half of this year, any number would be a bargain," Theo Epstein said. "It's hard to pitch better than he did. I think that's where our focus is; he's in such a great place mentally and physically right now. He was dominant, he wants to go do that over the course of many years as a Chicago Cub. He's an important guy for us."

Darvish is owed $81 million over the next four years and with the price of pitching around the game right now, it's very likely he would have been able to secure more for himself on the open market. He had an opt-out in his deal, but chose instead to stay with the Cubs, where he was comfortable and grateful to the organization for their patience and support during his difficult start to his Chicago career. 

"Certainly the way the starting pitching market has moved and as quickly as it's moved, you couldn't get a guy like Yu Darvish on that kind of number now, let alone what's left on his deal," Epstein said. "You want more contracts that have surplus value than the other way around. He's a real asset for us."

Even with Darvish's contract now looking like a bargain or boasting "surplus value," the Cubs are still in a tight spot financially with a projected payroll around $6 million north of the luxury tax threshold. 

Yet Epstein's front office is still in the market for another starting pitcher to take Cole Hamels' spot in the rotation. They have internal options (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Collin Rea, Jharel Cotton) and could potentially slot one of those guys in that role, but Epstein and Co. always want to run their rotation depth chart eight or nine arms deep. 

Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are locked into rotation spots and Jose Quintana will be as well, if he's not traded. The Cubs picked up Quintana's $10.5 million option for 2020, but it's the final year of his team-friendly deal and if the Cubs want to shed salary, dealing the veteran lefty might be an avenue to do so depending on what he'd fetch in a return.

If Quintana is moved, that obviously creates another hole in the rotation. Even if he remains on the North Side of Chicago, it would only be a short-term solution. Neither he nor Lester are signed beyond 2020 (Lester does have a vesting option for 2021) and the Cubs need long-term solutions for the rotation. 

So does that mean the Cubs are placing young, controllable starting pitching as a priority in trade talks as they dangle players like Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras?

"You can't force it," Epstein said. "We have a couple starting pitchers under longer-term control and then we have a couple who are up after next year and not a lot of depth behind it. So it would be nice, but you can't necessarily force it. We have a lot of needs and if we were to move a really good player, you want to get talent back. 

"It doesn't necessarily matter what position or what shape. But yeah, it'd certainly be nice over the course of this offseason and maybe the next trade deadline and maybe next offseason, we make sure we acquire impactful starting pitching at some point."

That could mean in the free agent pool, though the current budget issues would make that tough unless it's buying low on pitchers like they have the last two winters with Rea and Cotton.

It's yet another area where the Cubs' inability to draft and develop impact pitchers has come back to haunt Epstein's front office. But they can at least be grateful Darvish will return and has recouped enough value to change the conversation surrounding his signing as that of a "bargain."

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Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up

Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up

Over the last couple days, the Cubs' financial picture for the winter has come into focus.

The organization surprised no one by picking up Anthony Rizzo's $16.5 million option and Jose Quintana's $11.5 million option nor by letting veterans Derek Holland, Brandon Morrow, Tony Barnette and David Phelps walk instead of picking up their respective options.

The only mild surprise came when the Cubs opted not to retain Kendall Graveman for $3 million after he spent all of 2019 — his first year with the club — rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The 28-year-old right-hander has 83 career big-league games (78 starts) under his belt and $3 million is not a hefty price to pay for a potential back-of-the-rotation guy, but the Cubs clearly felt it wasn't worth the gamble at that price for a guy who would have an innings limit even if he had no other ill effects from the elbow procedure.

They also chose not to extend a qualifying offer to Cole Hamels, as the soon-to-be-36-year-old would've likely taken the $17.8 million to return to the Cubs on a one-year deal for 2020 and that would've been a huge blow to the organization's budget for the new season.

Just like last year when Theo Epstein traded away Drew Smyly and his $7 million salary to be able to afford Hamels' $20 million option, how the Cubs approached the first offseason domino (options) gave us our first clue for the winter's budget. But they won't ever come right out and telegraph their financial plan:

"We're not gonna really talk about our payroll or budget, just for strategic reasons," Epstein told David Kaplan and Pat Boyle on a Halloween interview on ESPN Radio. "It also doesn't really matter — words don't matter there. But we don't want to tip off the rest of the league to what we're trying to do. 

"I think when we're done assembling the team, you'll have a good feel for what our budget was, but we're gonna attack the offseason with the various means of player acquisition and try to shape the team for next year and for the future. We have to be mindful of both as we attack the offseason."

So with all the options out of the way, here's where the Cubs' payroll stands as the offseason picks up in earnest.

Committed salary

Jason Heyward - $23.5 million
Yu Darvish - $22 million
Jon Lester - $20 million
Anthony Rizzo - $16.5 million
Craig Kimbrel - $16 million
Tyler Chatwood - $13 million
Kyle Hendricks - $12 million
Jose Quintana - $11.5 million
Daniel Descalso - $2.5 million
David Bote - $960,000

Total (10 players): $137.96 million

Arbitration players (figures estimated by MLB Trade Rumors)

Kris Bryant - $18.5 million
Javy Baez - $9.3 million
Kyle Schwarber - $8 million
Addison Russell - $5.1 million
Willson Contreras - $4.5 million
Albert Almora Jr. - $1.8 million
Kyle Ryan - $1.1 million

Total (7 players): $48.3 million

Pre-arb players 

Note: MLB minimum salary was $555,000 in 2019 but will see a bit of a spike in 2020, so let's pencil it in at $560,000. Teams can pay players more than that and often do based on performance and good will, but they don't have to do that, so let's stick with the base salary for every player to keep things simple.

Ian Happ - $560,000
Victor Caratini - $560,000
Tony Kemp -$560,000
Nico Hoerner - $560,000
Colin Rea - $560,000
Rowan Wick - $560,000
Brad Wieck - $560,000
Alec Mills - $560,000
Duane Underwood Jr. - $560,000

Total (9 players): $5.04 million

There's also a $3 million buyout included for Morrow that will be on the books for 2020.

Add it all up and we're looking at $194.3 million next season for only 26 players (remember, MLB teams will have 26-man rosters beginning in 2020). 

That figure doesn't include other players that will be on the 40-man roster in the minor leagues or any other raises for the pre-arb players in the big leagues. Throw in an estimated $15 million for player benefits and Roster Resource estimates the Cubs' 2020 luxury tax payroll to be $219.8 million — quite a bit over the $208 million luxury tax. 

And that's not even taking into account any offseason moves via trade or free agency. 

Last season, the Cubs were one of three teams (along with the Red Sox and Yankees) to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold. Epstein and Co. blew by the figure by nearly $29 million, according to Spotrac, and were subsequently taxed $6.8 million as a result.

The Cubs did not hit the luxury tax in 2018, so this was only a 20 percent tax on the overages. If they eclipse the threshold again in 2020, they will be looking at a 30 percent luxury tax and would see their top draft pick drop 10 spots if they go over by $40 million.

If the Cubs are really trying to get under the luxury tax to reset the penalties in 2020 (as Kaplan mentioned on the latest CubsTalk Podcast), Epstein has his work cut out for him this winter. They would need to shed around $12 million in salary, and that's even before any acquisitions.

That explains why they didn't want to take the risk that Hamels would accept the qualifying offer and also why $3 million was too much to commit to a pitcher (Graveman) coming off major injury.

Now, looking at the roster and salary figures above, there are some easy ways for the Cubs to save money. 

It's hard to see Russell returning to the team in any capacity in 2020 and even if he did, there's no way the Cubs would pay him more than $5 million given his off-field issues and on-field struggles. It's also tough to envision the Cubs shelling out nearly $2 million for Almora when he's coming off a season in which he posted a .271 on-base percentage and a negative WAR.

Beyond that, there are also trades the Cubs could make to shed some salary. Maybe they find a taker for Chatwood in the final year of his deal. Or maybe Quintana and his $11.5 million salary on a one-year deal would be enticing to a pitching-needy team.

If ever there was a time to deal away players from the position-player core, now would be it as trades might be the only way to fill holes on the roster while also freeing up payroll.

Fans undoubtedly aren't worried about resetting the luxury tax and would love their team to go all-in trying to win the World Series in 2020. But for an organization coming off a disappointing 84-win season and back-to-back falls sitting at home watching the majority of the playoffs, it's hard to see that as a realistic course of action for the Cubs this winter.

Cubs fans frustrated by the team's lack of spending last offseason don't figure to be much happier this winter, but there should still be plenty of change coming to the roster. 

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