Rick Hahn tells the inside story of how one of the biggest Chicago sports trades came together

Chuck Garfien
NBC Sports Chicago

Exactly one year ago, the White Sox were at the tail end of a three-pronged rebuilding selloff that would fully jump-start their rebuild, giving them one of the best farm systems in baseball.

Having already traded Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals, general manager Rick Hahn had one giant piece left to deal.  

Jose Quintana.  

At least three contending teams were in hot pursuit of the highly coveted left hander, not to mention two surprise teams that hadn't been revealed in any reports. These two lesser known clubs weren't ready to win in 2017, but were quietly trying to build a rotation with Quintana for the future.

Trade talks for Quintana were heating up. Specific names had been exchanged. A deal was getting closer. Quintana was probably headed to one of these teams, and very likely before the trade deadline.  

Hahn had one more phone call to make. It was to Cubs president Theo Epstein.

Wanting to leave no stone unturned, Hahn didn't want to make a deal elsewhere without fully knowing the market. He saw a possible fit with the Cubs. Epstein, as it turned out, was interested.

Quintana had been one of the most consistent starters in baseball, plus he had arguably the best team-friendly deal in the league with 3.5 years and roughly $34 million left on his contract. Everybody wanted Quintana, including Epstein, who was looking for ways to upgrade his rotation. Quintana's contract would also give him the financial flexibility to sign another starter over the winter, which turned out to be Yu Darvish.

But for Hahn and Epstein to make a deal, there would have to be a thawing of the White Sox-Cubs Cold War. The two franchises hadn't made a trade with each other since 2006.

That trade was Neal Cotts and Carlos Vasquez for David Aardsma, an exchange that barely made a ripple on the Chicago sports Richter scale. This would be much different. This was Hahn trading away his best starting pitcher for the Cubs top prospects in their farm system.

The Cubs might have been defending World Series champions, the White Sox might have been rebuilding, but in this case, Hahn was in a position of strength.  

Since talks with other teams were so far down the road, Hahn already knew he was going to get a great return for Quintana. The question was, how great?

"The depth of those conversations with the other clubs is actually what put us in a position when it came time to talk to the Cubs to be able to be very direct with what it was going to take," Hahn said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.  "We could sincerely tell them that without Eloy (Jimenez) and (Dylan) Cease being part of it, it's not going to happen."

Jimenez was the Cubs best hitting prospect, Cease was their best pitching prospect. Both were one to three years away from reaching the majors. The Cubs were ready to win now; the White Sox were focused on the future.   

On paper, it seemed like a perfect baseball trade. But even while they were discussing the parameters of a deal, Hahn and Epstein were keenly aware of the consequences of a possible a Cubs-White Sox trade, which in this town has the potential of taking a blowtorch to a gas tank.  

They knew that certain things out of their control could kill the trade before it ever reached the finish line.

"Throughout the entire process we were both very clear with each other. Look, let's talk this through from a baseball standpoint with the understanding by each of us and with the latitude for each of us that we may need to come back tomorrow and say, ‘Hey man, this isn't going to happen, because of whatever,'" Hahn said about his talks with Epstein. "The amount of potential distractions or noise or other issues that could have sullied the waters that wouldn't exist if the White Sox are making a trade with the Dodgers."

Fortunately, there weren't any distractions or resistance from either sides. Hahn and Epstein both got the green light.

Now they just had to keep this thing quiet.

All baseball trades are like covert operations. Deals don't get done without a huge level of secrecy. At any moment, word could have leaked, potentially dooming the trade.

"The word getting out would have certainly increased the chances for there to be scrutiny and noise and derailment,"  Hahn said. "It's some other club jumping in, an offer being increased, any number of factors that can derail a trade. Certainly staying quiet was essential to being able to get the thing across the finish line."

What helped was that Hahn and Epstein formulated the trade during the All-Star break, a time when most of the media is focused on the Midsummer Classic. Plus, reporters don't have access to clubhouses and team personnel like they normally do.

The timing of their talks also created some odd situations. At one point Hahn had to ditch his son and hide behind an exhibit at the All-Star Fan Fest at the Miami Convention Center so he could speak with Epstein on the phone.

Whatever it takes to get a deal done.

On July 13, 2017, the trade became official. The White Sox agreed to send Quintana to the Cubs for Jimenez, Cease, plus infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete.

Hahn and Epstein were sure the secret would get out, but it never did.

"The short answer is yes, we were surprised,"  Hahn said. "We were surprised in part because it's very rare that we as a club get to be the first to announce any of our transactions, even if it's Avi (Garcia) to the DL. That somehow gets out on Twitter more often than not. So the fact that a major trade of any sort held until a press release, much less a trade between these two clubs and the level of heightened antennae that are around both clubs, especially this time of year, we were surprised."

However, the media was catching wind of the trade and gaining speed.

"I do recall I was on the phone with Q, which was the last step," Hahn explained. "All the Cubs players had been informed. I was missing him and getting voicemail. Finally, he and I connected and while I was talking with him I was receiving text messages from members of the Chicago media."

One of Hahn's texts read  "Q to the Cubs?" Another was simply, "Eloy?"

"So I had to cut short what was a fairly heartfelt conversation with Q to let (the White Sox PR staff) know to get the release out because that was the last step. We wanted to make sure we were the ones to get it out in the end."

One year later, the White Sox are quite pleased with the return they received. Jimenez has raked at three different levels in the minor leagues and looks like a budding superstar. He's currently on the disabled list with a strained abductor muscle and should be back at Triple-A Charlotte soon after the All-Star break.

After dominating at Class-A Winston-Salem, Cease was promoted to AA-Birmingham last month. He was invited to pitch in the MLB Future's Game on Sunday. Hahn says their staff looks at him as "a premium front-end starter."

Quintana threw six scoreless innings against the Giants on Tuesday night to get his ERA below 4.00 for the first time this season. He went toe-to-toe with Max Scherzer in Game 3 of the NLDS last October. He has the 5th highest run support of any pitcher in baseball; the exact opposite was true when he was with the White Sox. Plus, the Cubs have 2.5 years left of team control for Quintana at a ridiculously low price.  

But this is sports. We live in a world where there has to be both a winner and a loser. Is that how the biggest trade in White Sox-Cubs history will eventually be decided?  Or will it be considered a win-win for both teams?

"We're not going to know that for many years because the main reason this deal was able to come to fruition was that we were both at different portions of our success cycles,"  Hahn explained. "They acquired Q to help solidify their rotation and in their mind put them in a position to win multiple championships in the short term. That could still very well happen for them. Therefore, the deal would be judged as a great success for them.

"Our standpoint, we obviously weren't going to be winning any titles in the short term, so the benefit to us in the long term, and we won't be able to judge that for many years from now, hopefully we'll be able to look back and see that Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease and others helped us win multiple championships.

"It is a bit of cliche, but in this situation it's true based on how the teams are aligned in terms of their success cycles that this really has the potential to work out as a winner for both clubs on both sides of town."

What to Read Next