A relatively young team with eyes on contending not just now, but for years down the line just traded for a controllable, front-line starting pitcher. The Chicago Cubs, sputtering around the .500 mark a year removed from their World Series run, just swapped with their crosstown rivals to land Jose Quintana, the 28 year old lefty who compiled an impressive 18.0 bWAR from 2013-2016, a stretch in which he crossed the 200 IP mark in each and every year.
You might be tempted to say “Ugh, just what the Cubs needed - more stars.” In a sense, I get that. However, the reality is that this is just exactly what the Cubs needed, in that Quintana comes with team control through the 2020 season, and their starting rotation at the moment - which was stellar just last year - isn’t exactly replicating their marvelous 2016 run. Kyle Hendricks has battled injuries and the pains of regression this year, while Jake Arrieta and John Lackey - both of whom will be free agents after this season - have similarly been unable to produce the way they did in previous years. And considering the Chicago farm system, rich as it might be in talent, didn’t exactly have a future ace waiting immediately in the wings, the Cubs made the move despite it costing highly prized prospect Eloy Jimenez and Top 100 pitching prospect Dylan Cease, among others.
The reality of this move sits on the shoulders of three Chicago principles. The first, momentum, is the obvious one, since the Cubs rode an impressive breakout 2015 to their 2016 World Series, and with a roster otherwise stocked and loaded to maintain potential rule over the NL Central, kickstarting the 2017 season was a priority. Second, the weight of expectations, dovetails nicely with the first, since Cubs fans - despite waiting 108 years in between titles - have already grown to expect this highly touted club to win in dynastic fashion. The third, however, might well be the most focal of this particular passing glance: a front office unabashedly intent on bringing in the right players, and being willing to pay the cost to do that business.
Scroll back up to the start of this particular piece, if you will. It talks about a young team with eyes on contending in the near future and sustaining that prowess beyond a quick blip. A team that is in need of a rotation anchor, at that. A team that sounds not demonstrably different than where the Cincinnati Reds currently sit, at least if things break the right way in the coming year.
The Reds aren’t foreign to the concept. In fact, in terms of landing a relatively young, highly regarded pitcher (and paying a hefty price to do so), the trade that landed Quintana with the Cubs isn’t terribly dissimilar to the one that brought Mat Latos to Cincinnati prior to 2012 in a trade meant to fortify the 2012 rotation while also giving it an anchor for years beyond.
So, from the Cincinnati perspective, this trade is important. The Reds themselves may not have kicked tires on Quintana, despite his name being kicked around in obvious trade talks since the White Sox traded Chris Sale this past winter while clearly waving a white flag. However, if there’s one thing that’s obvious with where the Reds currently stand, it’s that three parts of their roster are pretty solidly accounted for, while one - starting pitching - remains the most abysmal at the big league level among all 30 MLB teams.
The Reds might not necessarily be banking on a major trade between now and 2018 to bolster their rotation. They may simply be hoping that a renewed Homer Bailey, the return of Anthony DeSclafani, the emergence of Luis Castillo, and a smattering of improvement from the other eight-ish talented rookie arms in the system will cobble together nicely enough to make marked strides. However, if they were in fact shopping for an established, front line starter - and names like Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer, and Sonny Gray are still out there - this particular deal sets the price, one that can’t exactly be music to the front office’s ears.
(Jimenez, for instance, just ranked 8th on Baseball Prospectus’ mid-season Top 50 prospect list. Prized Cincinnati prospect Nick Senzel? 15th, in case you want to start kicking around what it might take prospect-wise to land one of the other top controllable pitchers on the market.)
This all, of course, has been the ‘in a vacuum’ look at Quintana to the Cubs, a view of one team and one particular roster. A larger view here is needed too, however. Jose Quintana has made 169 starts among his 172 career appearances, in which time he’s pitched to some 4,373 opposing hitters.
None of those hitters were wearing a Cincinnati uniform, since Quintana has never once faced the Reds. The Cubs, though...well, the Reds will get to face them a whole heckuva lot between now and when the team control on Quintana’s contract is up after 2020. So, a team with similar timeline aspirations as the Reds didn’t just add an ace; a division rival added an ace, further upping the climb the Reds will have to maneuver to again place themselves back on top of the NL Central.
This trade is interesting both through the eyes of a model franchise making a significant move. However, it’s also interesting when viewed through the eyes of an arms race, which just might be how the Cincinnati front office should be viewing it. Starting pitching is both expensive and hard to find, and while the Reds sit in a position of clearly needing improved performance in that regard, their division rivals just added one of the best options out there on the market.
Next up? What the Reds choose to do to punch back.