Around this time of year, the best scouts start taking little mental notes about the counterparts they see in their travels from camp to spring camp. The back fields, where minor league players ply their trade in front of friends, family and guys in Under Armour polos holding radar guns, are as good a predictor as any of future trade talks.
Over the last few days, the buzz around camps in Florida and Arizona converged on the same player: Jose Quintana. Scouts ran their information up the chain – Chicago White Sox scouts are everywhere – and the game of telephone ended with general managers across the game wondering: Are they finally going to deal Quintana?
The answer, major league sources familiar with the talks told Yahoo Sports, is the same it’s been since the White Sox committed to rebuild and started the dismantling of their core: Yes … but only for the right price. And even as the White Sox have dispatched more scouts than usual to those back fields, sources said, no deal has materialized.
This is not to say one couldn’t come together within weeks, days, even hours. Multiple teams, including the Atlanta Braves, have shown continued interest, according to sources. Others known to have been involved at points this spring are the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates. Stewarded by general manager Rick Hahn, who has gotten industry-wide plaudits for his hauls in the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades, the White Sox find themselves capable of asking for the moon due to a number of reasons.
There is the utter lack of a front-end pitching market beyond Quintana. The A’s Sonny Gray is expected to miss at least the first month of the season with a strained lat and is coming off a disappointing season. Tampa Bay hopes to contend this season, so Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb aren’t going anywhere yet. The best available pitcher beyond Quintana, surmised two sources, is Junior Guerra, the Milwaukee Brewers starter who had a standout rookie season last year – as a 31-year-old.
The market during the season may not be a whole lot better. Among prospective free agents, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey won’t be going anywhere, and only a terrible start would force Toronto to consider dealing Marco Estrada or Francisco Liriano. Yu Darvish would replenish the Rangers’ farm system, but their desire to contend and sign him to a contract extension would seem to scuttle that idea.
Then there’s Quintana’s contract. For the next two seasons, he is owed $15.85 million total, and two more club options at $10.5 million apiece add up to four years at $36.85 million. On the free agent market, a pitcher of Quintana’s caliber gets upward of three times that for four years.
And that last point is why all this matters: Jose Quintana is really, really good. He is 28 years old. He is left-handed. He has thrown 200-plus innings each of the last four seasons. In none of those seasons did his ERA exceed 3.51. Never have his win totals matched his productivity, thanks to the White Sox’s perpetual water-treading since he joined them as a minor league free agent after the New York Yankees let him go for nothing as a 22-year-old. Scouts nonetheless adore Quintana’s three-pitch mix of a fastball that actually has increased in velocity over the last five years and a curveball and changeup that play off it.
Certainly there is a risk in not dealing Quintana right now, on the heels of restocking a farm system with the dazzling Michael Kopech, three other well-regarded arms in Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, and consensus top prospect Yoan Moncada. Quintana could get hurt. He could struggle. The risk, argued one GM interested in Quintana, is not worth the potential reward – that reward being an even bigger trade package from contenders who want to fortify their teams leading up to the July 31 deadline.
Atlanta, for all of its interest, might not be the best fit. While the depth of their farm system is enviable, a number of evaluators do not see as many high-end prospects in the Braves’ system, and with shortstop Tim Anderson agreeing to a six-year contract extension and Moncada penciled in as a second baseman, the Braves’ best prospect, middle infielder Ozzie Albies, doesn’t have nearly the allure to Chicago as he might other teams.
Houston and Pittsburgh, on the other hand, do have that frontline talent – particularly the Astros, who could create a compelling package around pitcher Francis Martes and outfielder Kyle Tucker. The White Sox, according to scouts, have had a number of eyes on Astros back fields, though one source suggested it’s more for future parleys than anything current or imminent.
In the meantime, the White Sox understand they dictate the terms, and they’re in as powerful a position as any team in recent memory. Quintana can go now, go in July, go in the offseason, and so long as he stays his consistent self, his value will remain stratospheric. One team will pay for it. It’s simply a matter of when.
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