Jose Quintana, Not Chris Sale, Is Top MLB Offseason Trade Target

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 22, 2016

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 29:  Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field on September 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Jon Durr/Getty Images

In a winter during which aces are in short supply, the hot-stove trade market seems to revolve around Chris Sale.

And he's not even the best thing on the market.

Let's make a case for the Chicago White Sox's other left-handed stud: Jose Quintana. He's also good, and he may also be available as the White Sox seek to course-correct after four straight losing seasons.

"We aren't approaching this offseason thinking we can make a couple of short-term tweaks to put us in position to win on a sustainable basis," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Nov. 8, via Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune. "We intend to make a firmer commitment to a direction to put ourselves in a better long-term position."

Dating back to a September report from Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, there's been trade speculation about Sale and Quintana for a while now. But be warned: They may not be equals in terms of availability.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com reported Friday the White Sox are "willing to deal any player who has fewer than four years of team control." With a contract with options through 2019, the 27-year-old Sale matches that description. With a contract with options through 2020, the also-27-year-old Quintana does not.

"It leads me to believe they'd like to hold on to him," one GM told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe last week. "Sale was mentioned, [Carlos] Rodon was mentioned and all the others, but not Quintana."

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  American League All-Stars Chris Sale #49 and Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pose for a photo prior to the 87th MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California. The American League defeated th
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

But with no true No. 1 starters available in free agency, it's not hard to imagine the White Sox being overwhelmed enough by an offer for Quintana to say yes. Some teams may be even more interested in him than they are in Sale.

With $39.5 million owed to him over the next three years, Sale is affordable. With a maximum of $38.85 million—his 2020 option gets a boost if he wins or places high in Cy Young Award voting—owed to him, Quintana is just as affordable over the next four seasons. And keep in mind, he's only about two months older than Sale.

Then there's the matter of their talent.

Sale has a lot of that, earning five straight All-Star nods and four straight top-five Cy Young finishes on the strength of sizzling stuff and pinpoint command. But in terms of WAR, Quintana has been the more valuable pitcher in each of the last two seasons:

Quintana garnered that edge despite a lesser workload, as he's pitched 414.1 innings to Sale's 435.1. But Quintana has been more effective, posting a 3.28 ERA to Sale's 3.37 ERA.

Sale obviously can't blame the ballpark he pitches in, the defense he pitches in front of or the competition he pitches to for those disadvantages. Other teams know that.

It'd also be fair for them to question if the divide between Sale and Quintana could get bigger going forward.

Sale opened the door enough in 2016 for doubts to creep in, after all. His strikeout rate went from trending ever upward to plummeting to "just" 9.3 per nine innings. He also lost nearly two mph off his average fastball from the year before, going from 94.5 mph to 92.8 mph.

Sale said in May that this was by design, telling Scott Merkin of MLB.com that "not throwing every single pitch as hard as I can every inning" was a change he wanted to make.

But as he gets closer to the big 3-0, the fear has to be that Sale could lose even more velocity and tumble further from his days as a strikeout specialist. How he would fare as a pitch-to-contact guy with less than electrifying stuff is a big unknown.

Meanwhile, such an unknown doesn't exist with Quintana.

CHICAGO - MAY 03:  Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Boston Red Sox on May 3, 2016 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Red Sox 4-1.  (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Ron Vesely/Getty Images

While Sale's velocity has become a question mark, Quintana's velocity held steady in the mid-91 mph range from 2013 to 2015 before peaking at 92.1 mph in 2016. That's a sign he hasn't already used all his best bullets.

Arguably just as good of a sign is that increased velocity hasn't made Quintana accustomed to a strikeout habit he might not maintain. He's better than he used to be, but he's only been about an average strikeout artist since 2013. For the most part, he gets by on command and deception instead.

His 2.0 walks per nine innings since 2014 provides a picture of how good his command has become. Brooks Baseball provides additional pictures, showing how he works one side of the zone with his four-seamer and the other with his sinker and how he buries his curveballs below the knees.

As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs highlighted in May, one thing Quintana's curve has going for it is a massive velocity difference from his fastball. It was 14.4 mph in 2016. That makes it better than the average hook when it comes to changing speeds, which is yet another challenge hitters must overcome.

Beyond the decent amount of whiffs he gets, one of the benefits of Quintana's approach is good contact management. Per Baseball Savant, he's been especially better than average at stifling hard contact on fly balls and line drives over the last two seasons:

Jose Quintana vs. MLB in FB/LD Exit Velo
YearMLB FB/LD Exit Velo (MPH)Quintana FB/LD Exit Velo (MPH)
201591.991.6
201692.291.3
Baseball Savant

This explains not just how Quintana keeps the ball in the yard so well, but also why his contact-heavy approach wasn't sunk by a bad White Sox defense in 2015 or a mediocre White Sox defense in 2016.

Long story short: Quintana doesn't need to miss bats to be a hard guy to hit. His excellence is not based on the dominance of his stuff, a la Sale, but instead on how he uses it. That's something he should keep up even as he ages over the next four seasons.

Mind you, the price to acquire those four seasons isn't going to be cheap. Last week, I explored how the White Sox are in a position to demand a collection of elite prospects in a Sale trade. Quintana's talent and the extra year on his contract put them in a position to demand even more for the Colombia native.

The trade-off, if you will, is a chance to get an equally good pitcher for longer. If Quintana ages as well as he should, it could even mean getting a better pitcher for longer.

Sounds like a good deal, no?

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Contract info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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