Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

BALTIMORE – A media scrum that began with Theo Epstein’s classic “Ask wetbutt” response to what the Cubs do next ended with the team president laughing as he concluded a long answer on the Jose Quintana/Jon Lester comparison: “I think Jose’s got him on throwing to first base.”

“And Jon’s got him on throwing the cutter, so I think they’re probably even,” Epstein said after literally knocking on the bench in the visiting dugout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A Cubs team that at times has seemed too quiet came out firing one-liners after the All-Star break, hitting bombs all over the stadium and onto Eutaw Street, sweeping the Orioles and feeling the bounce from that blockbuster trade with the White Sox.

For some of the same reasons that the Cubs invested $155 million in Lester, Epstein sacrificed top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to get another All-Star lefty who can anchor the rotation through 2020.  

“There are some similarities in their delivery, their effort levels and how clean their arms work,” Epstein said. “And – knock on wood – how clean their injury histories have been, how consistent they’ve been.

“They manipulate the baseball a little bit differently. Jon obviously cuts the ball a lot more than Quintana does. But, yeah, they’re pretty good comps. They’re right next to each other on the most valuable pitchers (rankings) the last three, four years in baseball.

“Lefties with great deliveries – repeatable deliveries – excellent command, the ability to get soft contact and miss a bat now and then, and not beat themselves.”

The Cubs purposely gave Lester some extra rest coming out of the All-Star break and will start him against Julio Teheran and the Atlanta Braves on Monday night at the new SunTrust Park. The hope is that will help Lester recover from the worst outing of his career – giving up 10 runs and getting two outs in an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that ended the first half – and a workload that includes nine playoff series across the last four years.  

Teheran actually tops the “Similarity Scores” on Quintana’s Baseball-Reference page, a top-10 list that also includes Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Marco Estrada and Yu Darvish.

“We’re completely different pitchers,” Lester said. “I think people want to compare because we’re left-handed. I don’t like putting two people together. We’re all different. We all go about things a different way. I know he’s a very solid, good pitcher and has been doing it for a while.

“The thing I respect, obviously, is his ability to take the ball every five days. He pitches 200 innings and goes about his business the right way. As far as the other stuff on the field, I don’t like pigeonholing people.”

Lester is five years older than Quintana, who at 28 already has four consecutive seasons with 32 or 33 starts on his resume (while playing for White Sox teams that averaged almost 90 losses a year). Between 2013 and 2016, Lester (18.3) and Quintana (18.1) rank sixth and seventh in terms of pitcher WAR on the FanGraphs database, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, David Price and Corey Kluber.

The history of nine-figure megadeals for pitchers shows Lester should crash at some point. But there are also reasons to believe that Quintana could rise while pitching in the National League with a Gold Glove-level defense behind him and Bryzzo Souvenir Co. generating more offense.

First impression: Quintana looked extremely comfortable in a pennant race, putting up seven scoreless innings, 12 strikeouts and zero walks in his Cubs debut. The Cubs believe they’ve found the one-two punch that can get them back to October, year after year. Left unsaid: Your move, Brewers.

“Well, Jon is the best left-hander in the league,” Quintana said, “and now he’s my teammate, so that’s an honor for me. I’m real excited. I can’t wait to work with him and learn with him and help this team (show) what we can do.”