As we think about potential targets for the Red Sox this winter, whether it be players acquired via free agency or trade, it’s hard not to focus on the pitching staff, and specifically the rotation. It’s not that other areas of the roster don’t need help, because they certainly do. It’s just that the sheer amount of help they need in this area, both in terms of talent and also just raw number of bodies, kind of overwhelms any other possible need. All of this is to say that today we’ll be looking at a potential starting pitcher the Red Sox could target on the free agent market.
We did this last week as well when we looked at the free agency of Corey Kluber and tried to find whether or not he fit with the Red Sox. Today, we’re going to look at another long-time Central division pitcher who belongs in that same good-not-great tier of free agent pitchers this winter. This time around it’s lefty José Quintana.
As just a bit of quick background, Quintana started his professional career pitching in the Yankees farm system, spending four years there before becoming a minor-league free agent and signing on with the White Sox. It was here where his career flourished and he made his major-league debut in 2012. For those first five years of his career in Chicago, Quintana was consistently mentioned as perhaps the most underrated pitcher in all of baseball. He put up a 3.51 ERA (115 ERA+) in his five-plus years with the White Sox. In 2017, however, he was shipped across town in a deal that sent him to the Cubs, where he spent the next three-and-a-half years. Quintana has been much more average of late, putting up a 4.24 ERA (101 ERA+) on the North Side.
“Average” seems like a really good descriptor of what Quintana can provide, and while that may sound like an insult it’s actually exactly what the doctor ordered for this Red Sox rotation, obviously depending on price. The veteran lefty — he’ll turn 32 shortly before pitchers and catchers report next spring — is one of those guys who doesn’t really stand out in any one way, but rather is a sum of the parts kind of arm. Looking at his last three seasons, Quintana comes in within 1.5 percentage points of league-average in both strikeouts and walks, with the former being a bit below and the latter being a bit above. Similarly, on a rate basis his home run rate is better than league-average by 0.17 homers per nine innings, which hardly seems significant.
The point is, this isn’t, say, a Robbie Ray type of arm where you’re getting the huge strikeout numbers but very little control, or a modern-day Jon Lester who has the control but doesn’t miss bats like he used to. Quintana is the sort of set it and forget it pitcher that the Red Sox so desperately need. And when I say that, I don’t just mean the skillset, but also the durability.
This is a part that becomes a little more shaky, though. For most of his career, Quintana has been one of the most reliable pitchers in the game in terms of taking the ball and making his starts every five days. From 2013, his first full season in the majors, through 2019, he made at least 31 starts in every season, and only made as few as 31 in one of them. Nobody made more starts than Quintana in that stretch, with Lester the only one who matched him. For the majority of the last decade, literally nobody could be counted on to make their scheduled starts more than Quintana.
Last year, however, the trend ended, and not just because it was physically impossible for anyone to start that many games. For the first time in his carer, the veteran southpaw started to deal with some injury issues. In total, Quintana was only able to make one start with three relief appearances mixed in due to injury. For the beginning of the season, he missed time after cutting his thumb while cleaning a wine glass. Let he who has not bled while doing dishes cast the first stone. This, clearly, is not an injury you really worry about long-term, and he did return from it. However, later in the year he suffered a lat injury. This wasn’t particularly serious as he only missed two weeks, but it’s certainly the type of injury that is more concerning in terms of reappearing than cutting your thumb on a wine glass.
Durability is really the key to Quintana’s value to the Red Sox. Granted, even on talent alone he’d be one of the better pitchers in the rotation, but consider what the team’s rotation looks like at this moment. They are hoping for a mid-summer return from Chris Sale, but there’s no way to guarantee he won’t suffer any setbacks, nor any way to know how stretched out he’ll be, never mind how effective. Eduardo Rodriguez seems to be progressing well from myocarditis, but his stamina and effectiveness is a total unknown. Nathan Eovaldi is always an injury question. Tanner Houck has three career starts and there are still concerns for him to work out. Nick Pivetta, despite a couple strong showings at the end of the year, has still mostly been mediocre-to-very-bad as a major-league pitcher. And then you have, like, Chris Mazza, who is Chris Mazza.
They clearly need more than one pitcher and a real talent infusion into that group, but they also need a guy who you can just plug in as a starter and know he’ll be there 32 times for you throughout the season. (Assuming 162 games, which, who knows.) Quintana has been that guy for the majority of his career, and even this past year most of his missed time was due to a very fluky injury. On the other hand, he did suffer a lat injury later in the year and is about to turn 32 years old. Can you really count on health as a major selling point moving forward? Or do you just toss aside minor muscle injuries due to the weirdness of the 2020 season?
Personally, I think I come down more on the latter stance where I’m willing to throw out any injury issues in 2020 for Quintana and look at him as the durable, reliable, league-average lefty that he’s been since joining the Cubs. And since all of this stuff always comes with the caveat that it is dependent on price, consider that Quintana was projected to get two years and $18 million by MLB Trade Rumors (who had him going to Boston, to boot), while FanGraphs readers had a slightly higher projection at two years and $20 million. At either of those prices, I’d be all over it if I was running the Red Sox.