July 4th may be behind us, but you can certainly expect some fireworks in the coming weeks as the Major League Baseball landscape enters its greatest point of flux. Teams are sure to undergo an identity crisis in an age where parity has never been more palpable – something that we seem to decry more and more each year. What the second wildcard has done for TV ratings, its done even more in blurring the ambiguous line between a modern-day buyer and seller.
But on the South Side of Chicago, that line has long been clear. It’s been conspicuous since the moment Chris Sale dyed his socks red. The Chicago White Sox are going to be sellers at the 2017 non-waiver deadline and of their entire cupboard of assets, none is greater than Southpaw Jose Quintana.
This brings us to another line; the line General Manager Rick Hahn has to draw in the summer sand regarding what constitutes the proper return for his ace. And if Quintana’s not an ace in the conventional sense, he’s surely the second most valuable piece in the deck and anyone who’s played poker, knows it’s almost never a one card game.
Speaking of Poker, Hahn and Co are the ones who hold all the cards when it comes to the Columbian hurler and that’s why any Quintana package is far from malleable. There’s two spheres of value when it comes to Quintana. There’s his value in a vacuum, which is quite clear and then his inherent value to the White Sox, which takes a little more unpacking.
The vacuum-value speaks of a pitcher who ranks seventh in total fWAR among MLB starters since 2013, wedged between Jon Lester and Madison Bumgarner. It also recognizes that Quintana has been one of the most consistent starters in the game, save for a couple bumpy months to open his 2017 campaign. Really any way you shake it, Quintana is a good bet to churn out 200 innings of 3.40 ERA baseball on an annual basis. He’s arguably the most reliable quality start printer in the game, even without being the flashiest. But you don’t always need calligraphy to succeed, and Quintana is an easy way to get from point A to point B.
Then you have the transferable value of his contract as he’s owed a mere $29,850,000 million through 2020. For context, David Price is making $30 million this year alone. If you buy Quintana as a ~4 win pitcher each year for the next three seasons, then that’s about $54 million in projected surplus value. Classic integrative bargaining would call for Chicago to find a prospect package that at the very least matched that surplus value.
Where things get dicey is there’s a chance Chicago believes 2019 can be the start of their window and 2020 looks to be an even firmer target year. It’s not an out-of-bounds prediction either with upper echelon talent on the farm skewed toward the top and a plethora of money opened up in free agency. Quintana is under control for both those seasons, which adds a pinch of intrigue to the overall calculus of a deal. Quintana isn’t going be valued purely on the overall projection of any return, but rather the projection of that return as it specifically pertains to the 2019 and 2020 clubs as well. This would be a totally different proposition if he were a free agent after 2018 as any control prior to that date has little value to Chicago’s specific goal to win.
Sustained success is a buzzword but extreme practice of realizing it can lead to a more utopian view of the baseball world, in which any asset in theory could be flipped and multiplied into a larger net of assets. An example would be that if 2020 weren’t reasonably expected to be a competitive year, then assets like Yoan Moncada (FA after 2022) and Carlos Rodon (FA after 2021) could theoretically be on the block too, which at face value looks for lack of a better term, crazy. The difference with Quintana would then be his age, but as a 28 year-old who doesn’t rely on power stuff to succeed, he could very well remain in his prime when it matters.
So Rick Hahn isn’t just blowing smoke when he publicly states that Quintana can have value on all thirty clubs, including Chicago. Look no further than the Adam Eaton trade, which compares quite similarly. Controlled through 2021, Eaton could have played a role on the next White Sox playoff team, but the trio of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning could in fact have more value than Eaton alone during that same time-frame. That was the mentality behind that blockbuster and the same lens with which I expect Quintana to be viewed. This means getting an impact player at the front end of the deal who can contribute relatively soon and provide nearly equitable value as soon as 2020.
The bat versus arm debate fizzles out quickly as well. This prized headliner will almost certainly be a bat. It’s what the White Sox targeted in their most recent draft and remains a weak point on a farm that currently has the deepest pitching pipeline in baseball. Arms by nature are simply more volatile and risk laced than controllable bats, which is why it’s of little surprise that Moncada was the only truly premium bat Chicago fetched in its two prior blockbusters.
With leverage on his side, a clear mandate in mind, and the asset of the deadline in his vest, Hahn is going to be able to use more than a plastic shovel to dig a line of value regarding Quintana. So while it’s fun to get creative and toss around quantity-centric packages or build ones around a stud arm, I’d be very surprised to see Quintana moved for anything less than a true premium bat at the head of the deal. With that said, these are the names I surmise serve as Hahn’s hard-line for each given suitor.
Houston Astros: Kyle Tucker, OF
I don’t think Jose Quintana will be heading to Houston because while everything is said to be bigger in Texas, that doesn’t seem to apply to an Astros trade package. Alex Bregman is unequivocally off the table from the get-go, which will naturally lead Chicago to Kyle Tucker. He clocks in as Houston’s #2 prospect on MLB Pipeline and #27 in baseball. A top five draft pick in 2015, Tucker carries a plus hit tool with the type of power that can play in right field. He was certainly on the radar before the season, but has broken out even more this year. He’s slashed .284/.359/.541 across two levels, collecting 20 2B, 5 3B, 16 HR, and 19 SB. At 20 years-old and in Double-A, he’s moving fast. He’s the high ceiling, low risk prospect Hahn is looking for and has an ETA confluent with their timeline.
Derek Fisher is another outfielder with a power/speed combo who has torn up an even higher level in Triple-A, but he has a less stable hit tool. Fisher’s now up with Houston and it’s possible Astros GM Jeff Luhnow would try to market him and one of their arms at the front of a deal. Maybe Martes and Fisher could keep Hahn listening, but when the paint dries I wouldn’t put money on Houston if Tucker is as untouchable as has been reported.
Milwaukee Brewers: Corey Ray, OF
Here’s a really good match. The Brewers are 46-40 and at the top of the National League Central, one of the weaker divisions in baseball with the Cubs having been kidnapped somewhere between Cleveland and a bar in Wrigleyville. The Brewers are on the cusp of being relevant, if they’re not already, and have a flourishing system. Their rotation could use a jolt as the surprising emergence of Jimmy Nelson hasn’t been enough to offset Junior Guerra not replicating last year’s magic or pending free agent Matt Garza entering the twilight stage of his career. Quintana has enough team control to fit into their next window and front their staff for the next three years. Him and Josh Hader could form a dynamic 1/2 punch as soon as 2018.
Rick Hahn would ask for prized prospect Lewis Brinson in return but be rebuffed quite quickly. The center-fielder with a coveted 30/30 ceiling isn’t going anywhere and it would be a hard sell for the Brewers to part with him and even more talent for Quintana. Enter Corey Ray, a Chicago product who was a member of the White Sox’ youth ACE program. A target in the 2016 draft, Ray didn’t get to the White Sox but a homecoming is still possible. He fits the mold of a headliner, ranked #21 overall in baseball and possessing a power/speed blend that makes him a Brinson-light. His hit tool is lagging a bit and there’s some risk here, but the upside is that of someone who could hit 20 bombs from the left side and swipe 25-30 bags. One of the more polished college bats in the 2016 draft, Ray would stand to be fast tracked to the majors. If Quintana goes to the Brewers, he’ll be the guy.
New York Yankees: Blake Rutherford, OF
See a trend forming? It’s a safe bet that an outfield bat will be the desired target, as Chicago is presumably set in the middle infield with an Anderson/Moncada duo. While the best player available approach is noble, it’s not always pragmatic in team building. This isn’t to say the White Sox wouldn’t pop confetti over Gleyber Torres, but the system is lacking a close-to-the-majors impact outfielder. That’s why Clint Frazier probably fits best here and it’s likely where Hahn initially goes, but I don’t think he’s necessarily the line in the sand.
If Frazier, now up under the big lights of New York, is too integral to the 2017 club that dealing him seems remiss, then I think something can be constructed around Blake Rutherford. Chicago liked him in the 2016 draft, but watched him go after them to the Yankees on what was likely a prearranged deal. A bona-fide tool-shed, Rutherford is #30 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list and features a solid feel for hitting with the power potential to make him interesting. At just 20 years-old and in A-Ball, he’s got more projection in his profile than these other names but a comparable ceiling. If the rest of the package is deep enough, consisting of an arm like Chance Adams and the now injured Dustin Fowler, then Hahn and Brian Cashman could wind up shaking hands.
Colorado Rockies: Brendan Rodgers, SS/2B
The Rockies and White Sox have seemingly been a match made in heaven for years now, both capitalizing on inefficiencies at opposite spectrum’s of the game. It’s easy for the Rockies to find offense at Coors Field but a much taller task attaining competency on the mound. They’ve finally appeared to hit on a pitching prospect in Jon Gray, who has now returned from injury. But the rest of the rotation is volatile and not long for propping up one of baseball’s best offenses. At 49-37, 7.5 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West and firmly entrenched as a 2nd wildcard club, Colorado is gunning for its first playoff appearance since 2009.
With little inability to attract premier pitchers on the open market because of their home park, the only avenue for the Rockies to formulate a viable rotation stands through trade. Quintana may not be a the prototypical power pitcher the Rockies covet, but he’s missing more bats this year, has a healthy ground ball rate, and has done a nice job staving off home runs in the past. He’s certainly found success in his own hitter’s haven. The Rockies haven’t had a plug-and-play 200 inning pitcher for a long time and that’s Quintana. Pair him with Gray and Hoffman and that could be a formidable front end of the rotation through 2020 if Colorado is willing to part with something it consistently churns out; a top bat.
The #10 prospect in baseball, Brendan Rodgers is the absolute ceiling of what Chicago could fetch for Quintana. After going number three overall in the 2015 draft, he has the goods to stick at shortstop and the bat speed to be an impact player at a premium position. His plate discipline is still developing but he made quick work of A-Ball in 2016 and obliterated High-A to start the year (1.119 OPS in 222 PA). He’s just getting his feet wet in Double-A but has all the looks of a premium player who could move quickly. 3B Ryan McMahon has arguably been the best player in pro ball this year, and a package of him, power arm Riley Pint, and OF Raimel Tapia could get the wheels turning but Rodgers will be Hahn’s ask and ultimately the line.
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna, OF
At 40-42, Atlanta is marginally hanging around in the National League Wildcard race and I’m touching on them because they had legit interest in both Chris Sale and Jose Quintana this offseason. The hang up with the Braves is that their system is mostly flooded with arms. The picturesque headliner is in 2B/SS Ozzie Albies, the #7 prospect in baseball and a 20 year-old who is on the cusp of the majors. He has an excellent hit tool with plus-plus speed that should enable him to sustain a high average and be a doubles machine. There’s not a ton of power here in a small frame, level swing laden profile but Albies is a switch hitter who will have a plus glove up the middle. That’s extremely valuable and probably around a four win player. Hahn will ask for him but I don’t think he’d hang up if he were off-limits.
Kevin Maitan is a truly dynamic teenage signing for the Braves and another piece Hahn likely covets. He’s almost all projection at this point, with little substance from a stats perspective to back up the loud tools. That renders him a high risk/high reward combo but the type of ceiling that makes scouting directors salivate. Most smoke says that Braves GM John Coppolella is hesitant to part with either. The other rub has been that the Braves could just throw a barrage of arms at the White Sox, from Kolby Allard to Ian Anderson and everything in between. It’s true that they could offer 3-4 Top 100 prospects in the way of arms but I don’t think any combo seals the deal without a key bat, which stands as Ronald Acuna. Another teen international signing, Acuna is #87 on Pipeline but even more highly regarded by other outlets. Like Maitan, he features five-tool potential but has the production to back it. Just 19 years-old, Acuna has already made a mark in pro ball with 15 2B, 6 3B, 10 HR, and 32 SB (.850 OPS) in 79 games across High-A and Double-A this season. Acuna is the fulcrum regarding whether Quintana ever becomes a Brave.
Chicago Cubs: Eloy Jimenez, OF
I’m going to keep this short. Quintana makes loads of sense for the struggling Cubs who are in dire need of controllable pitching for not just this season but the foreseeable window as well. Incumbents like Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, or now Ian Happ would all be in play to some degree but if any deal actually took place, negotiations would likely land on Eloy Jimenez. Signed on the international market in 2013, Jimenez has high-octane power, a solid hit tool, and the arm for right field. He’s not quite the runner any of the other targets, and might even be fringe in that category, but he still has the chance to be a star. A 20 year-old in High-A, his .866 OPS and batting practice shows do plenty of talking. RHP Dylan Cease isn’t going anywhere, but put Eloy in play with right-hander Oscar De La Cruz and there might be fire.
Problem is an intercity trade is highly unlikely. It’s not that the White Sox aren’t willing to deal with the Cubs on some arbitrary principle, which has been irresponsibly opined, but Theo Epstein is likely keeping close reins on Eloy. That’s also why I’m low on the Cubs getting a premium arm, but I’ll save that topic for other writers on here to tackle.
When all is said and done, these above names are likely the linchpin of any blockbuster trade. Quintana’s team friendly control and cost gives Rick Hahn the type of leverage only seen before in the Sale and Eaton deals, so there will be little wiggle room on the names at the top. Rick Hahn won’t be spending the next month anywhere that remotely resembles a beach but make no mistake, when it comes to Jose Quintana, he will definitely be drawing a line in the sand.