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After a lost 2020, free agent José Quintana needs a reset

Quintana threw only ten innings last year, though his ceiling as a four-win rotation anchor is tempting.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When José Quintana was traded in a rare intra-city deal that sent him from the south side White Sox to the north side Cubs, Cubs fans’ expectations were understandably high.

Quintana had been a four-win player during his tenure with the Sox, and it cost the Cubs a big price to get him. The White Sox received Baseball America’s 14th-ranked prospect, Eloy Jimenez, in return.

Despite his success with the White Sox, over the course of three-plus seasons with the north siders, Quintana performed as just a league-average pitcher by ERA, posting a 101 ERA+ though his FIP was better than league average by about 15 percent.

A contact-first pitcher, Quintana totaled only 420 batters in his 440 innings with the Cubs, a a meager number for someone brought in to anchor a rotation as a front-line starter who cost a major trade piece.

The worst year of Quintana’s tenure on the north side was 2020, where a combination of injuries including one that required thumb surgery and another related to a lat strain, caused him to miss nearly all of the COVID-shortened season. Overall, he started just one game, came out of the bullpen in three others, and totaled an unimpressive 10 innings.

Entering his age-32 season in 2021, teams do have a historical ceiling of high performance that may lure them into viewing Quintana as a reclamation project. From 2013 to 2017 he racked up 21.5 wins for the White Sox, and a partial season with the Cubs. He demonstrated that soft-contact could lead to consistent four-win seasons, and that he could be an impact pitcher for any rotation.

Although mostly viewed as a blockbuster trade at the time, it could have been an even bigger splash since if it weren’t for Chris Sale being the clear ‘ace’ of the White Sox’ staff, Quintana would have had an even bigger profile.

In his first few years with the White Sox Quintana was durable, effective, and inexpensive since he signed early at below-market rate for pitchers who demonstrated similar results. The Cubs however, were not beneficiaries of his surplus-value.

Over the course of Quintana’s career, opponent hitters’ hard hit percentage has increased steadily, particularly since 2015. While he regularly limited hard contact to less than ⅓ of contact with the Sox, with the Cubs it was consistently more than that, topping 38 percent in his last full season (it was 50 percent in 2020, but in ten innings, we’ll give that a pass).

Quintana is not. and never has been a power pitcher. He does not have a plus fastball, nor does he rack up strikeouts with wipeout offspeed pitches. He’s a contact-first pitcher, who is at the mercy of softly hit balls and good defense. Under the right circumstances, with a strong infield behind him, he could potentially reach that four-win ceiling again, which is something teams may dream-on if they were to consider giving him a multi-year deal. As it stands however, a one-year reset is most likely to be where the next contract lands.

Since 2020 was a lost season not just for Quintana but for several free agents, we’re likely to see a myriad of resetting one-year deals, Quintana being no exception. It’s a lousy situation for most players, who are another year older, and coming off a season where they didn’t play and train as they usually do.

Quintana will have the opportunity to bet on himself with a one-year deal, and hopefully as a 32 year old four-win player could command a decent two to three year deal. If we see more of the same of what we saw with the Cubs in 2021 however, he won’t ever get that multi-year top-of-the-rotation payday. Time is running out.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano