Welcome to the new year! Since there haven't even been many rumors about the Cubs over the last week, this will be a bit of a shorter post with three tidbits I've been thinking about over the holidays.
The José Quintana trade made sense
There has been a lot of talk over the past two seasons about how the Cubs’ front office must regret their cross-town blockbuster trade of Eloy Jiménez, Dylan Cease, and two minor-league infielders for José Quintana. I disagree for several reasons:
- Jiménez and Cease were not sure things in 2017.
Entering 2017, Jiménez was the 15th prospect in baseball at a 60 future value (FV), and Dylan Cease wasn't in the top 100 as a 45 FV pitcher (the Cubs’ seventh-best prospect). Now, both became better prospects after the trade, which you could fault the front office for not foreseeing, but I believe this only looks bad if you ignore the next point. Jiménez was still a great prospect, but Cease was valued lower at that point than, say, Adbert Alzolay was in the middle of 2019.
- Quintana was better before the trade than many realize.
In the three seasons prior to the year of the trade (2014-2016), Quintana was the eighth-most-valuable pitcher in baseball at 14.1 FanGraphs WAR, just behind Jon Lester and ahead of Madison Bumgarner and Zach Greinke. During that period, he threw the ninth-most innings of any pitcher.
Quintana averaged 4.7 fWAR per year from 2014-2016, and 4.23 rWAR. No Cubs pitcher has reached that fWAR mark since 2016, and the team has only seen three pitching seasons more valuable since 2014: Jake Arrieta‘s 2015 and 2014, and Jon Lester's 2015. The Cubs were trading for a pitcher who had been one of the best, most durable, and most consistent pitchers in baseball for three years. Even better, Quintana was only in his age-28 season when the trade occurred, and he was on a team-friendly contract.
- Quintana has been better as a Cub than many realize.
This is partially due to a WAR discrepancy. By FanGraphs WAR (fWAR), Quintana was the Cubs’ second-most-valuable pitcher last season with 3.5 WAR, a full 0.7 WAR better than Jon Lester. According to Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR), however, he was worth just 1.2 WAR in 2019. He's accumulated 4.7 rWAR in his time with the Cubs, but 7.3 fWAR. This discrepancy is largely due to Quintana's FIP being better than his ERA in 2017 and 2019. Obviously, we can't ignore one metric in favor of the other, but it's important to acknowledge that neither is definitive, and that Quintana's true value is likely somewhere in between. I generally prefer fWAR, though, and from 2017-2019, Quintana has been the 24th-best pitcher in baseball, while thrown the 15th-most innings. This, combined with his team-friendly contract, means he has provided good value for the team despite public perception.
I'm sure the Cubs would rather have Jiménez and Cease going into 2020, but Quintana was still more valuable than the pair even last season. The Cubs traded one top-100 prospect for one of the best starting pitchers in baseball at the time, and while Quintana hasn't lived up to expectations on the north side, the trade that brought him there wasn't a mistake.
The dwindling free-agent market
After a faster offseason than many expected, Josh Donaldson is the best free agent left on the market, followed by two similar outfielders, Nick Castellanos (who the Cubs remain linked to for some reason) and Marcell Ozuna. They are the best established position players remaining. By 2019 fWAR, the best pitcher remaining is Ivan Nova, followed by Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas, none of whom would start in a playoff series. Alex Wood is the only pitcher left who projects to be better than Nova, and he's coming off a -0.2 fWAR season. Top-reliever-remaining Will Harris signed a three-year, $24M contract with the Nationals on Thursday. There are still a few good relievers available, like World Series champion Daniel Hudson, Brandon Kintzler, and Collin McHugh, but the names further down the list are uninspiring at best.
This is mostly to say that it's very possible that, barring a surprise Castellanos signing, the Cubs will not sign a single free agent to a non-split/minor-league deal over the offseason. This would have sounded outlandish after the season ended, but the offseason is shaping up that way.
If Donaldson returns, where does Bryant go?
The sense is that Josh Donaldson wants to return to the Braves. If he ends up there, the Kris Bryant trade market could look a little grim. The Braves are by far the best trade partner for the Cubs when it comes to Bryant, due to their deep farm system and need for a third-baseman. The Twins are in on Donaldson, but I haven't seen them connected to Bryant at all. Discussions with the Nationals have apparently “gone nowhere”, as the Cubs apparently insisted Victor Robles be included in any deal. That leaves just the Phillies and Rangers as potential destinations for Bryant, and neither match up particularly well with the Cubs. The asking price for Bryant is understandably high, and I don't think the front office should lower it. However, if Donaldson signs with the Braves and a Kris Bryant trade doesn't happen, the Cubs could be left with a strikingly similar roster to last year. In that case, they will enter the season as contenders, but it is eminently possible they'll be sellers at the trade deadline, having squandered another year of their window of contention.