Alex Avila

Jose Quintana's Blue Book value one year later: Mercedes or Buick?

Jose Quintana's Blue Book value one year later: Mercedes or Buick?

One year ago, the Cubs made a bold trade with the Chicago White Sox, acquiring left handed starter Jose Quintana for four minor league prospects, including two of the best players in the Cubs farm system: outfielder Eloy Jimenez and right-handed pitcher Dylan Cease.
 
So 12 months later, did the Cubs make a good trade or did the White Sox get the best of the deal?

With none of the prospects having advanced to the major-league level yet, you can’t call the trade a win for the Sox at this time.
 
However, we can evaluate Quintana’s first 12 months in a Cubs uniform and whether his performance was worth the massive price the Cubs front office agreed to pay to acquire him.
 
First, Quintana’s contractual status had to be taken into account when the deal was made. He had 3.5 years of team control left on his deal at a very affordable price. That fact made the cost of obtaining his services much more expensive. He had pitched well while wearing a White Sox uniform and several teams were trying to obtain him, so the Cubs had to make a serious offer before he ended up pitching against them with rivals Milwaukee and St. Louis also negotiating with White Sox GM Rick Hahn.
 
His analytical numbers were very attractive as he ranked among the 20 best starting pitchers in the American League in several categories. He had proved to be extremely durable posting four consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched and he had no major injury history on his resume. However, according to multiple MLB scouts that I spoke with they had their concerns that Quintana was worth the massive price the Cubs paid to acquire him.

The “eye” test just didn’t show an elite level starter. A good pitcher? Yes. But a pitcher worth one of the best prospects (Eloy Jimenez) in all of baseball? That was a bit of a stretch. Quintana’s contract obviously drove the price up but the Cubs needed to acquire a top flight starter with ace Jake Arrieta departing after the 2017 season. Not a pitcher who so far in 2018 is performing far below the expectations the Cubs had for him one year ago.
 
“It comes down to needs and wants,” then-Braves GM John Coppolella told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution of a possible Quintana pursuit before the 2017 season. “We don’t have needs in starting pitching. Do we want a No. 1 starter, is Chris Sale a No. 1 starter? Yes. Do we want Jose Quintana? I don’t think Jose Quintana is Chris Sale.”
 
His extremely team friendly contract — which includes team options for 2019 and 2020 — allowed the Cubs to address their rotation (Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood) and relief needs (Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow) last offseason. 
 
But, the Cubs had another option to fortify their starting rotation when future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander was made available in trade talks and they rejected that by acquiring Quintana and then using their remaining minor league trade chips to acquire reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila from the Detroit Tigers.
 
Avila was a necessity because of a hamstring injury to starting catcher Willson Contreras that knocked him out of action for a month. Wilson was acquired with the expectation that he would be an elite setup man and a potential replacement in the closer’s role should Wade Davis depart after the 2017 season. (He did, signing a multi-year contract with the Colorado Rockies).
 
However, Wilson has been a major disappointment since he arrived and in fact, he was left off of the Cubs 2017 NLCS roster after struggling mightily with his control. He has been significantly better in 2018 but he is still not pitching at the level the Cubs expected him to be at after his strong performance as a member of the Tigers.
 
What if the Cubs had used some of their trade assets to acquire Verlander? Could anyone have projected that he would pitch as well as he has after a subpar start to his 2017 season in Detroit? Did the Astros see something that other clubs did not? Or did they catch lightning in a bottle on the way to a World Series championship?
 
This much is a fact: Verlander wanted to pitch for the Cubs and he made that clear to his agent. He had retooled his mechanics over his last handful of starts as a member of the Tigers and he believed he had a lot left in the tank. But, he was also owed nearly $60 million and was signed for one year less than Quintana. He also had a lot of mileage on his arm and he was believed to be on the decline by many around baseball.

Weighing all of the factors, it is very easy to see why the Cubs chose to acquire Quintana — younger, more cost controlled at a much lower salary, which allowed them to spend in other areas to improve their team and he was in much higher demand.
 
To date, Verlander has been far superior and his performance in helping to lead the Houston Astros to the 2017 World Series title was nothing short of amazing. Quintana has had moments of brilliance but far too often he has been mediocre and that cannot continue if the Cubs want to make another deep run in the post season. 
 
Did the Cubs lose the trade with the White Sox? It is far too early to make that assessment because the Sox have yet to see any of the four prospects they acquired play at the big-league level. 
 
But, this much is true: The Cubs paid the price to acquire a Mercedes and Quintana has pitched like a Buick much of the time. Not that a Buick isn’t a nice car, but you don’t pay big bucks to drive a car that isn’t special.

With the calendar now in July, it’s time for Quintana to pitch consistently like the star the Cubs believed they were acquiring if another World Series title on the North side of Chicago in the near future.

Cubs opposition research: Are the Diamondbacks primed for another big season?

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AP

Cubs opposition research: Are the Diamondbacks primed for another big season?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Arizona Diamondbacks

2017 record: 93-69, second place in NL West

Offseason additions: Steven Souza Jr., Alex Avila, Jarrod Dyson, Brad Boxberger, Yoshihisa Hirano, Fernando Salas, Albert Suarez, Neftali Feliz, Antonio Bastardo

Offseason departures: J.D. Martinez, Chris Iannetta, Adam Rosales, Gregor Blanco, David Hernandez, Fernando Rodney, Brandon Drury, Anthony Banda

X-factor: A.J. Pollock

What happened to the guy that enjoyed the breakout 2015 season?

The dyanmic centerfielder was one of the best players in the game that year, finishing in the Top 15 in NL MVP, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and winning a Gold Glove. He hit .315 with an .865 OPS, scored 111 runs, hit 20 homers and stole 39 bases while racking up 7.4 WAR in 157 games.

But Pollock has fallen on some tough times since then. Slowed by injuries the last two years, he's appeared in just 124 games since that 2015 campaign, posting a .264 AVG and .794 OPS. 

In his final year before free agency, Pollock will need to remain healthy and performing at the 2015 level if the Diamondbacks are going to have a repeat trip to the postseason. 

Projected lineup

1. David Peralta - LF
2. A.J. Pollock - CF
3. Paul Goldschmidt - 1B
4. Jake Lamb - 3B
5. Steven Souza Jr. - RF
6. Alex Avila - C
7. Ketel Marte - 2B
8. Nick Ahmed - SS

Projected rotation

1. Zack Greinke
2. Robbie Ray
3. Taijuan Walker
4. Patrick Corbin
5. Zack Godley 

Outlook

This lineup is still very good, but the loss of Martinez will hurt. Souza has a nice blend of power and speed and is a better defender than Martinez, but losing that absurd kind of power behind Goldschmidt is impossible to replace.

Health will be key for this team, as there isn't a ton of depth beyond the main players. Jarrod Dyson is a great fourth outfielder, but he's also 33 and on the downspiral in his greatest asset: speed.

Lamb and Peralta tear up right-handed pitching, but both are susceptible to lefties and serve in more of a platoon role. Goldschmidt is one of the best players in the game and Pollock has the potential to join that conversation. Marte may also be on the verge of a breakout.

The pitching staff has question marks. The bullpen lost Rodney and Hernandez, gaining a host of unknowns in the process. Archie Bradley has never closed before and Boxberger provides some experience there, but things are not very stable beyond those two.

The starting rotation was very good in 2017, but will need a repeat performance if they're going to once again make it to the NLDS. Former Cubs prospect Godley has impressed and Ray is one of the best strikeout artists in the game, but Greinke is getting up there in age (34) and Corbin has been inconsistent the last few years.

So much went right for the Diamondbacks last year and while their window of contention is open right now, the question is: For how long?

Prediction: Third place in NL West, just misses second wild card spot

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

 

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

On Opening Night, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred huddled with a small group of reporters on Busch Stadium’s service level, listening to questions about what the Cubs could do for the sport’s profile (think late-1990s New York Yankees), why their personalities connect with fans (like today’s Golden State Warriors) and how Theo Epstein ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list (or two spots ahead of Pope Francis).

“Well, listen, I’m a good Catholic,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to comment on that one. It is Lent and all that.”

Manfred projected new-year optimism on April 2, because the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be on ESPN that Sunday night, and what he said then remains true now: “An iconic franchise with a great storyline is something special.”

Fast forward to October and the Cubs are still the defending World Series champs, heading into another made-for-TV matchup against the Washington Nationals after winning the National League Central by six games.

But the 2017 season didn’t at all feel like a coronation, the Cubs banging their heads against the .500 wall at 21 different points, suffering injuries up and down the roster and underachieving to a level where Epstein considered selling short-term assets like Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis if the team didn’t immediately respond after the All-Star break.

So while 92 wins and a third straight playoff appearance may have seemed preordained six months ago, the Cubs needed breakthrough moments to get into the best-of-five battle that begins Friday at Nationals Park:

• Shocking the baseball world by pulling off the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox became as much about stabilizing the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations as trying to save this season. But the Cubs accomplished both goals with that blockbuster deal, reenergizing a team that had been 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

A low-key personality, Quintana still showed up at Camden Yards and immediately changed the clubhouse dynamics, dazzling the Cubs during his July 16 debut, an 8-0 win that became the exclamation point to a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. The consistent lefty handled the pennant-race pressure, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after spending parts of six seasons on the South Side.

Quintana has never before pitched in the playoffs – or faced the Nationals – and will be counted on in future Octobers.

“Our guys were fired up about the trade, and they all came back really refreshed from the break,” Epstein said. “You could kind of see it in their eyes. It was just time to get going.”

• Deflecting questions about his diminished velocity, unconventional mechanics, postseason wear and tear and looming free agency, Arrieta rediscovered the kind of zone that made him the NL’s 2015 Cy Young Award winner. Arrieta’s strong July (3-1, 2.25 ERA) and lights-out August (4-1, 1.21 ERA) helped the Cubs enter September with a 3.5-game lead in the division.

Arrieta would always have an outsized influence on this season, because he’s already shown that he can carry a team and swing a playoff series, which makes his Grade 1 right hamstring strain such an X-factor against Washington.

“It’s almost like a new normal he’s trying to pitch with right now until he gets back to his old self,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a tough injury. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your mind all the time.

“It’s there because you know how much it hurts if you do it again. There’s that guarded approach to everything you’re doing, so you’re trying to go through your typical patterns. But in the back of your mind: ‘If I go too far, is it going to pull?’

“Nope, it didn’t pull. Then your next pitch, you go through that same mental routine. Until you get beyond it. It’s just one of those things you have to get beyond, so it’s going to take time.”

• Imagine where the Cubs would be if they had let Jorge Soler’s value completely crater and failed to close the Wade Davis trade with the Kansas City Royals at the winter meetings. Davis helped the Cubs stay afloat and find their finishing kick by converting his first 32 save chances, preventing even more negativity from seeping into the clubhouse. By importing veterans like Davis, outfielder Jon Jay and setup guy Koji Uehara, the Cubs stressed World Series experience, a sense of professionalism and never-panic attitudes.

“We have such a great vibe, and such a great culture in our clubhouse, that we’re so careful now on who we bring in, because we want to make sure that we continue that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at the three major acquisitions this winter, all these guys have been part of championship teams. They understand what it takes to win.”

• Javy Being Javy: The Cubs actually gained ground in the standings while All-Star shortstop Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis. Javier Baez started 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hit .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch. Not that Baez lacked for confidence – this is someone who got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager – but he is ready to build off last year’s breakout playoff performance.

“Without Javy being here when Addie got hurt, it would not look the same right now,” Maddon said. “I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy’s done in the absence of Addison – we would not be in this position right now. That’s it. Very simple.

“It’s so important to have a legitimate shortstop. We have two legitimate shortstops and they’re both (around) the same birth year. It’s very unusual to have that. The depth to us has been so invaluable.

“Give our front office – Theo and Jed – a lot of credit to have all the foresight to plan for those kinds of things. Without Javy, we would not have this many wins.”

• The Cubs were built to withstand the war of attrition across the 162-game schedule and outlast the smaller-market teams within their division.

Kyle Schwarber wound up with 30 home runs in a season marked by a failed leadoff experiment and a demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Ian Happ put up 24 home runs and an .842 OPS during his rookie season. Backup catcher Alex Avila was good enough to be a frontline guy for the Detroit Tigers teams that won four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014. Lefty swingman Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 130-plus innings) saved the bullpen and the rotation while lefty reliever Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA in 68 appearances) will also be in Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

But beyond depth, there will be more than enough Bryzzo, big-game experience and premium talent on this playoff roster to beat a Nationals team that still has so much to prove in October.

“I think this year there have been long stretches where kind of everybody was pulling their hair out or searching a little bit,” Epstein said. “We’ve dealt with some things this year, but answered a lot of questions. There’s always a question: ‘Can you raise your level of play when it matters most?’ And I think our guys are proving that they can.”