Why Cubs see Jose Quintana as a game-changer

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs see Jose Quintana as a game-changer

BALTIMORE — It might have been the red wine talking when reporters spotted him in a San Diego hotel, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon called it winning the baseball lottery when Jon Lester decided to sign with a last-place team during the 2014 winter meetings.

Just as that $155 million megadeal symbolized a franchise on the rise, this Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox becomes a shot of adrenaline for the defending World Series champs.

“It’s definitely an injection,” Maddon said before Friday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles. “There’s definitely energy involved. It’s more believable with him around here right now.

“You can’t do this without pitching. You cannot win for consecutive games for a period of time unless you pitch really well for a period of time. He gives us a much better chance of doing that on a consistent basis.

“He’s almost like the perfect acquisition right now.”

Quintana’s presence alone in the visiting clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards won’t magically fix a sub-.500 team or close the 5.5-game gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. But another All-Star lefty to pair with Lester in this pennant race — and potential playoff rotations in 2018, 2019 and 2020 — made this an offer the Cubs couldn’t refuse. Especially when Quintana’s combined salaries as a Cub will roughly be the equivalent of Lester’s signing bonus.

“That’s the whole thing about it,” Maddon said. “With him, it’s not just about this year. It’s about down the road a little bit also. When you look at his body of work, where he’s at, his age and what’s also left on the contract, he’s the kind of guy you probably wanted to pick up this winter, anyway. And you get to do it now and give you a chance to help you win the second half and get back to the dance.”

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Quintana hugged Lester, met with Maddon and smiled throughout his media session. Quintana looked forward to his debut on Sunday against the Orioles and looked back on his time with the White Sox after hearing so many trade rumors that linked him to teams like the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.

“I watched the Cubbies a lot,” Quintana said. “I’m so happy to move to the other side of the city and stay in Chicago. I think it was the best trade for me.

“It was my first team and they gave me an opportunity to make the big leagues and I have a lot of friends there. But I know that’s part of the business. And now I’m going to go a different way. I’m happy with that.”

At the age of 28, Quintana is in position to notch his fifth straight season with at least 32 starts and 200 innings and become part of the star-studded cast that already includes Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant under club control through the 2021 season.

“When you look at Jose’s track record, he’s as consistent as they get,” Rizzo said, “one of the most underrated left-handers in all of baseball. And he’s with us now for a while. That’s great for us — to have that certainty that he’ll be part of this.

“He’s a young player. And he’s an amazing player that I think will get a chance to shine over here more than over there with Chris Sale going every fifth day for the White Sox for so long.”

Maddon’s message to Quintana in welcoming him from an off-the-radar rebuilding situation to a traveling circus: Be yourself.

“He’s got a great opportunity to impact this team in the second half,” Maddon said. “When you say that, some guys give you the wrong look. He was very good with that thought. He was very comfortable with that thought.”

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”