Once you accept that the Cubs are planning to stay under the $208 million luxury tax in 2020 – and, regrettably, we have accepted it – you start thinking about all the possible trade pieces that (1) could realistically be moved, (2) would actually cut a meaningful chunk of salary, and (3) makes sense to move right now.
Kris Bryant has always been the most obvious among that group, as shopping him at this particular point in time made sense – at least seeing what’s out there – regardless of the salary implications. If you want to totally reshape the roster and aim to extend competitiveness past 2021, and if you think Bryant is not going to sign an extension you are willing to offer, then you’ve pretty much got to try to max out his value before he walks in free agency. (TBD whether that’s in one or two years.)
But Bryant is not the only movable piece with a substantial salary. He’s not even the only guy in arbitration who could be moved for value: there is also Javy Baez, who would command the biggest return in trade … but who is just so intimately tied to the organization, and open to an extension, that I don’t see the Cubs seriously entertaining moving him.
There’s also Kyle Schwarber, who might make upwards of $8 million in arbitration, but it’s always been hard to see the Cubs getting as much value back in trade as they believe they already have in Schwarber, given his second-half breakout. Willson Contreras might not get much more than $5 million in arbitration, but trading him has always been more about the potential return than the money saved. Albert Almora might earn close to $2 million, but he has no trade value. Query why he was tendered in the first place if the Cubs were this desperate to cut payroll, but I guess they do think he can bounce back. (I am less optimistic.)
Moving on to the guaranteed contracts, I really don’t believe Anthony Rizzo is going anywhere, despite no extension talks right now. I just don’t see it. Jason Heyward is a possibility, but the Cubs would have to find just the perfect fit, eat a boatload of salary in the process, and also find a team not on Heyward’s 12-team no-trade list. It’s unlikely to happen. Craig Kimbrel has negative trade value right now, so the Cubs will have to keep him and hope last year was a fluke. Daniel Descalso is immovable, and also not a big chunk of salary anyway. David Bote could be traded, but his contract is actually really good for a solid bench player, and isn’t enough of an AAV hit ($3 million) to make a trade worth it unless the return was huge (and it wouldn’t be).
In the rotation, Jon Lester is in the final year of his deal and has a big hit for luxury tax purposes, but he also has no-trade rights, and I have a hard time seeing the Cubs moving him (must less moving him for value) right now. We’ve talked about Yu Darvish, and I don’t see it (plus he also has no-trade rights). Kyle Hendricks would probably have huge value in trade, but I’m thinking the Cubs are happy to keep him on into the next window. Tyler Chatwood could be movable if the Cubs eat a lot of salary, but then how much are you really saving? Might as well hang onto him for now and see what happens in the first half.
Ultimately, then, you’re left with only one player on a guaranteed contract who clearly checks the three boxes I mentioned at the top: Jose Quintana.
In a ravenous market for starting pitching, especially on short-term deals, there’s little doubt that several teams out there would love to have Quintana for 2020 at $11.5 million.
After a down 2018 season, Quintana bounced back in a big way in 2019 … in his peripherals, if not his results:
Quintana’s inflated ERA in 2019 was almost entirely because of his BABIP and LOB rate, the latter of which I’m quite sure was a total fluke. He didn’t suddenly forget how to pitch with runners on base, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of well-placed, ill-timed balls to wreck that number (which we’ve seen does not really have a ton of year-to-year predictive power unless it’s an every-single-year kind of thing for a guy). As for the BABIP, the huge jump was unquestionably tied to an increase in his hard contact rate and line drive rate, though neither number was egregiously bad. For some reason, Quintana was giving up a lot more hard line drives – specifically – in 2019 than in years before. It’s an issue, especially when there are velocity questions, but a normal LOB rate still would’ve netted him a well above-average ERA.
So anyway, that is all to say, if you’re a team out there looking for a short-term, low-cost starting pitcher who can post a well-above-average season, Quintana figures to have a lot of value in a market that saw Cole Hamels (36) get 1/$18M, Tanner Roark (33) get 2/$24M, Kyle Gibson (32) get 3/$30M, Jordan Lyles (29) get 2/$16M, and Rick Porcello (31) 1/$10M, among many other *wow* contracts for middling starters.
If you figure Quintana, 31 next month, has upwards of $7-10 million in surplus value, he could net a decent prospect in trade, though not an elite guy. or maybe five years of a very good young reliever. Something in that range. Just trying to give you the picture of the return, in addition to cutting the salary. It’s definitely non-zero.
OK, so we’ve established that Quintana likely has quite a bit of value out there, but the first question you have to ask before any of that matters … why would the Cubs trade him in the first place?
Well, like I said up top, you have to live in the real world, however lamentable you may find it to be. And in that world, the Cubs are trying to cut salary. So that’s reason one, with a bullet.
But the Cubs don’t have a bunch of obvious starters behind him ready to go and replace his performance in 2020, you say. To which I say, again regrettably, that I’m not sure the Cubs are trying to max out to win in 2020 – indeed, I kinda think a miniature version of the opposite is true: get under the luxury tax, add some low-odds pieces, see what happens in the first half, and then sell-off with an eye toward 2021 (specifically) if you aren’t leading the division. With that plan, you might as well let Quintana’s spot in the rotation go to a guy like Chatwood or Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay or one of those roll-of-the-dice starters out there in free agency. You have Quintana only for a year at this point anyway, and it’s a year when balling out to compete doesn’t appear to be the primary goal.
If I’m right about The 2020 Plan, then it is probably desirable to trade Quintana now, or at least to go into the season knowing you’re probably going to trade him in July. And, since cutting payroll right now is paramount – the Cubs aren’t going to want to risk accidentally going over the luxury tax in 2020, lest any 2021 plans get totally blown up by the exponentially escalating nature of penalties – they would absolutely prefer to trade him right now. And, since the market really wants guys like Quintana, now might be the best time to pull off the trade anyway.
Now, in conclusion, I slide in the rumor that logically broke right after Hyun-Jin Ryu signed, closing off the certain part of the free agent starting pitching market:
Teams that still seek a starter: Twins, Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Phillies, possibly Brewers, Braves. Starters whose names are heard on market: Price, Ray, Boyd, Clevinger, Happ, speculatively Archer, Matz/Stroman, M. Gonzales, Quintana. Should be a wild scramble.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 23, 2019
Lots of team names, lots of possible trade pieces, and right there among the speculated arms – the first time we’ve heard his name out there from a national source – is Jose Quintana.
Given everything we believe we now know about the Cubs’ situation? This isn’t going to be the last time Quintana’s name comes up.