Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Eloy Jiménez’s MLB debut. With that in mind, it’s an interesting time to look back at the blockbuster crosstown deal that brought the 23-year-old slugger to the South Side.
Jiménez wasn’t the headlining name of that July 2017 swap. That was José Quintana, with good reason. The southpaw had emerged as one of the game’s most consistent, reliable starters. True, he always played second fiddle to Chris Sale, but he was perhaps the game’s preeminent #2. Over the three-plus seasons preceding the deal, Quintana combined for a 3.47 ERA/3.31 FIP with no injury history to speak of. Equally as appealing, the hurler was controlled at well below market rates through 2020 thanks to an early-career extension.
The appeal for the Cubs was apparent. They had a superlative position player core that had carried them to the 2016 World Series. The starting rotation was already a strength, but one with some question marks on the horizon. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey were each approaching free agency, and it was fair to wonder for how much longer Jon Lester could post ace-level production. Locking in a cheap, young rotation stalwart like Quintana made perfect sense for that season and beyond.
It came at a hefty price. Jiménez, Baseball America’s #14 prospect entering that season, centered the package for the White Sox. Alongside him came another top 100 prospect, flamethrowing right-hander Dylan Cease. It was easy to see the South Siders’ thinking, too. Never able to build a competent roster around Sale, Quintana, Adam Eaton and José Abreu, the Sox had already pivoted to a teardown. Abreu stuck around, but the rest of the core was shipped off for future assets. It was a fascinating, if mutually-understandable swap, with the clubs’ crosstown rivalry no doubt adding intrigue. How have things actually played out?
To some extent, as expected. Quintana has remained remarkably durable and taken the ball every fifth day. That’s been especially useful for a team whose concerns about its long-term pitching outlook have generally proven true. Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Quintana have each been dependable, while big ticket free agent Yu Darvish has had some extreme highs and lows.
Despite a deluge of recent early-round picks on college arms, though, the Cubs haven’t established any sort of pitching pipeline from the farm system to supplement that quartet. On the one hand, that lack of cheap, in-house pitching makes acquiring Quintana all the more meaningful. Yet it’s also played some role in keeping the Cubs from reaching the dynastic heights some had anticipated.
Since the deal, the Cubs have been solid, but not quite at the level one could’ve reasonably hoped for. That characterization also applies to Quintana himself. The Colombian lefty has given the Cubs 400+ innings of 4.23 ERA/3.95 FIP ball. That’s about league average production on a rate basis. With his exceptional durability, he’s a valuable pitcher, especially relative to his contract. But he hasn’t pitched at the level he showed on the other side of town. Now 31, Quintana’s entering the final season (assuming there is a season) of the aforementioned extension. He’s a plausible but uncertain candidate for a qualifying offer next winter, which could allow the Cubs to add a draft pick.
Even if Quintana does net a compensatory pick, that player won’t project to be anywhere near the level of Jiménez. (That, of course, is what the Cubs expected, since there was always going to be a high price to pay for a pitcher of Quintana’s caliber). Not only did Jiménez continue to thrive in the White Sox’s system, he’s already found major league success.
Last season, Jiménez hit .267/.315/.513 (116 wRC+) with 31 home runs in 504 plate appearances. He’s not without his flaws; he didn’t rate well in left field and could perhaps stand to be a little more patient at the plate. Yet there’s no questioning Jiménez’s massive power upside, and he certainly looks the part of a potential middle-of-the-order force. Clearly, the White Sox expect him to be just that, having inked him to a $43MM guarantee that could keep him in Chicago through 2026. So continues the long line of early-career extensions the organization has amassed in recent years. Those deals (Quintana’s included) have paid huge dividends on the whole.
Cease, too, has a shot at emerging as a long-term asset. He raised his stock immediately after the trade with a strong season and a half in the minors. That didn’t translate in his first 14 MLB starts last season, but there are things to dream on. Cease posted a solid 24.9% strikeout rate as a rookie while averaging 96.5 MPH on his fastball. His is a higher-variance profile than Jiménez’s, but the Sox surely hope he can emerge as a useful arm in the near future, even if as a reliever.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably fair to say the Cubs wouldn’t make this deal again. It was a perfectly defensible move at the time, and Quintana has capably filled a key need on the roster. It’s not a disaster, as a few of the front office’s free agent moves have been. But Quintana’s slight regression on the North Side, combined with Jiménez’s continued blossoming offensively, looks to have tipped the scales in the White Sox’s favor.