The White Sox got close enough to a potential Jose Quintana deal that they almost pulled their ace from his July 8 start at Coors Field. The next day, Theo Epstein got a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, suddenly reviving a trade discussion the Cubs president assumed was dead after a post-draft check-in that sounded like a formality in June.
If the Chris Sale asking price started at reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant, why would the White Sox want to help the defending World Series champs now?
The New York Yankees at one point felt close to landing Quintana, the minor-league free agent who left them after the 2011 season and then blossomed into an All-Star on the South Side. The Milwaukee Brewers also had active talks with the White Sox, doing extensive research and background work on one of the game’s most underrated pitchers.
The Brewers will get an up-close look at what they missed on Friday night at Miller Park, where Quintana will stand out as the move that may have changed the entire trajectory of this Cubs season and the future of the NL Central.
“I think it figures in more than you think or may even realize,” manager Joe Maddon said before Thursday’s 6-3 win over the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.
While the Cubs have gone 11-2 since the All-Star break, regaining sole possession of first place for the first time since late May, the Brewers endured a 15-2 loss to the Washington Nationals that showed the crash may be coming. With Matt Garza and Chase Anderson on the disabled list, Michael Blazek gave up six home runs in his first career big-league start – at the age of 28 after getting drafted in 2007.
While Quintana’s presence stabilized the rotation and gave the Cubs a shot of adrenaline, the Brewers have seen their 5.5-game lead vanish after a first half where they played way above expectations and projections and ahead of their rebuilding schedule.
“Getting a new guy, he comes out and he pitches great,” Maddon said, referencing Quintana’s July 16 debut against the Baltimore Orioles where he put up 12 strikeouts and zero walks in seven scoreless innings. “He also set a standard the way he did it – strike throwing, aggressive (and a) calm demeanor. Everything he did out there that day was what you want everybody else to watch.
“So that has a lot to do, I think, with how our starting pitchers have settled down a bit. And then beyond that, just the thought among the group that Theo and (GM) Jed (Hoyer) went out there and got somebody like that.”
The Brewers (54-50) still have more than three full business days until the July 31 trade deadline, one of the industry’s best farm systems and 10 games left against the Cubs. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have also stayed in the picture, hovering around .500 in a weak division that could wind up being very entertaining in September.
Epstein insisted that trading for Quintana shouldn’t be interpreted as an overreaction to three-and-a-half months where the disappointing Cubs didn’t have the same edge, because his team-friendly contract made this a long-term play through 2020. But the Before and After pictures are striking.
“The trade should be read as a vote of faith in this group,” Epstein said in Baltimore on the first day back from the All-Star break. “Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in what’s happening at the moment – the tough first half that we had – that you fail to take a step back and realize that not only can this be a winning group, it is a winning group.
“These guys just won a World Series. Our goal is to win more World Series with this team. We all felt like to do that there’s a significant rate-limiting step: We had to add starting pitching.
“It looked for a while like there might have to be a trade-off – we might have to take away from this group in order to add the starting pitching. But to be able to make this trade and add a significant starting pitcher without touching the core of this major-league team – or the major-league team at all – should be read as a show of faith and support in this group.”
It’s also impossible to miss the big smile on Quintana’s face. He called the video tribute here “amazing” and said he “almost cried” watching it. He wanted to say thank you to the fans and the entire White Sox organization.
Without this assist from the White Sox, where would the Cubs be now?
“I miss those guys,” Quintana said. “Now I have to focus on trying to help my team here and try to do my job. It’s a really good opportunity for me to be in first place. I want to do the best I can.”