I’ll admit that when I first saw that the Cubs traded for Jose Quintana from the White Sox for four prospects, I was stunned. I thought, how in the world could Theo Epstein give up his top two prospects in this trade? While Quintana is a good pitcher and provides an instant, significant upgrade to the rotation, he’s not exactly Clayton Kershaw, either. The package of Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease (along with the much less heralded Matt Rose and Bryant Flete) looked like way too much.
However, after thinking about it a little, I concluded that while this is a very risky trade, it was not necessarily a bad risk to take for both the short and long-term future of this team.
Let’s look at the short term first. The Cubs already came into this season short on starting pitching depth, and that was before the collapses of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, the disappointing performance of Jon Lester, and the injury to Kyle Hendricks. Coming into this season, Quintana had started 32 games for three straight years while posting ERAs of 3.32, 3.36, and 3.20. Last year, he was an All-Star and finished tenth in AL Cy Young voting.
Quintana got off to a rough start this year but has shown some improvement of late. He gave up just six earned runs in 30.1 innings in June. And since he’s moving to the more pitcher-friendly National League, there’s reason to believe he’ll continue on the right track. The Cubs also were proactive in making a trade before the Brewers did, as they sit 5.5 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. Indeed, the Brewers will need pitching help at the deadline and may have even been a suitor for Quintana.
Now for the long term. Last year, the Cubs were a mostly complete team that needed bullpen help and gave up a package that included top prospect Gleyber Torres to get closer Aroldis Chapman. It was the classic rent-a-player trade, as Chapman was a free agent at the end of the year and his sole purpose was to fortify the Cubs’ bullpen for the 2016 postseason. Given that this was perhaps the best chance the team had yet to break their long championship drought, it was a necessary move. Without Chapman, the Cubs don’t make it all the way through the postseason. Even if Torres has a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees, it was worth it.
This year’s trade for Quintana will help in the long-run because the Cubs now have a reasonably-priced starting pitcher under control for an additional three years. With Lackey and Arrieta set to become free agents this offseason, the team was going to have to worry about filling two huge holes in the rotation, either by re-signing Lackey and/or Arrieta or looking elsewhere. Given how poorly both have pitched this year and the lack of internal alternatives, the Cubs were likely going to have to hand out a massive contract to at least one, if not two, starting pitchers this offseason. This trade means there’s already one less thing to worry about this winter.
So, was filling this need in the rotation worth giving up the team’s top two prospects? Well, let’s be honest: This trade makes the Cubs better, but it doesn’t even come close to solving all the problems they’ve had so far this year. There is no trade that could do that. The only way this team will come back to win the division is if the guys they have start playing the way we expected them to at the beginning of the season, no matter what they get out of Quintana. And that’s not even addressing how much this trade closes the gap between the Cubs and the National League’s elite teams like the Dodgers and Nationals, because it doesn’t even come close if the rest of the team keeps playing like this.
But given the short and long-term needs this addresses, I think it was a gamble the Cubs needed to take. The Cubs already have lots of promising young players at the major league level, and they pulled this trade off without giving up any of them. All four prospects they gave up are still in Single-A and far from sure things. If both Jimenez and Cease become stars in the Major Leagues one day, this will be a clear win for the White Sox. If one of them does but not the other, it will probably be an even trade for both sides. Or if they both bust, it will be a win for the Cubs. We just don’t know. What we do know is that for every successful player the Cubs have drafted, they’ve had far more busts.
So while I’m still in shock over this trade, I don’t necessarily think it was the wrong move. In order to remain a successful franchise for many years, you have to take some risks that may not look good a few years down the road. When you stockpile lots of big-time prospects, eventually you have to start using some of them to improve your big league roster. Theo Epstein seems to believe that the Cubs are at the point of their plan that they need to do this to continue winning.
I’m not rooting against Jimenez and Cease in order to feel better about this trade in the future, because that’s the wrong attitude to have. Rather, regardless of what the two of them do in the future, we want it to be worth giving up to get Quintana. Let’s hope that’s what happens.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.