With the Chicago White Sox’ decision to trade Chris Sale to the Red Sox for an impressive array of prospects, the club has made clear their intentions to begin selling. They are rebuilding, and are going to get younger with an eye on the long-term future. Yoan Moncada — maybe the best prospect in baseball — and Michael Kopech are a very good start. If we start to go down the list of players the White Sox have who might fetch a good deal on the trade market, we begin with Chris Sale. With Sale crossed off the list, the obvious next name belongs to the White Sox other ace, Jose Quintana.
To be clear, Jose Quintana is not Chris Sale. His stuff is not quite as electric, he doesn’t strike as many batters out, and he doesn’t a game in the way that Sale does. But not being as good as Chris Sale isn’t much of an insult. One can be less good than Chris Sale and still really freaking good, and that basically describes Jose Quintana.
Here is a list of the top-10 pitchers in baseball over the last three years, by our version of pitcher WAR.
That’s eight guys generally agreed to be legitimate No. 1 starters, plus Quintana and Cueto, who have performed like aces despite not having classic ace stuff or ace strikeout rates. But by limiting walks and home runs, Quintana has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, in a league with guys who are unquestionably elite arms.
So that’s what he’s done. You can’t buy the past, but the past does help us predict the future to some degree. So, looking forward, we have the Steamer projections. What does Steamer think about Quintana for 2017?
Well, it thinks he’ll be a little worse, because pitchers generally do get worse as they get older. But by “worse,” that means he projects as a +4 WAR pitcher instead of a +5 WAR one, and that forecast calls for him to be as valuable as Cueto, Chris Archer, Jake Arrieta, and Dallas Keuchel. Again, these are great names with which to be associated. Steamer thinks Quintana is a top-15 or -20 starting pitcher in major-league baseball next year. And oh yeah: he’s signed for less money over the next four years than Sale is due over the next three. And that means there’s an argument that the package the White Sox receive for Quintana shouldn’t be wildly different than the one they got for Sale.
You’re reading FanGraphs, so you’re probably familiar with the concept of surplus value. And by surplus value, Sale and Quintana aren’t all that different. By a simple calculation, Quintana can reasonably be expected to produce something like the same amount of WAR over the next four years as Sale is over the next three; he’s not quite as good, but he could potentially give whatever team acquires him an extra 150-200 innings, so the total projected value over the remaining contract could be quite similar. And, again, the prices are about the same, with Quintana actually having an edge because his 2017 salary is just $7 million; he literally fits into the budget of every other team in baseball.
So the question is just how you discount the long-term value relative to the short term. If you put a lot of weight on 2017, and a lot less on 2020, then Sale’s advantage in performance outweighs Quintana’s advantage in quantity. And there’s a decent amount of evidence that teams do indeed do this, since the future is so uncertain. Quintana could blow out his arm well before 2020, so that fourth year of control is far more likely to disappear than the edge Sale has in expected performance next year. Depending on how you discount future years, you might come out with Quintana being worth something like 80-90% of Sale’s value; if you come out lower than 80%, you’re probably overweighting the differences between them, at least based on what they’ve done recently.
For Sale, the White Sox got something like $100 million in surplus value — maybe a bit more than that if you’re really high on Kopech. So that puts Quintana’s value at something like $80 to $90 million in value, and that’s still enough to command a serious haul, if not quite another Yoan Moncada. But that Victor Robles/Lucas Giolito package that was thought to be the Nationals initial push for Sale? That’s not an unreasonable ask for Quintana.
The question remains, however, how much teams will discount Quintana’s value because of how he gets outs. As mentioned, he’s the Sonny Gray type of ace, a guy who posts strikeout rates a little above league average, but dominates through walk and home-run avoidance; these guys never quite get the same kind of respect as strikeout machines. And as Gray’s implosion in 2016 reminds us, there’s more risk involved with pitch-to-contact guys, who can see their value diminish quickly if the contact gets a bit more authoritative.
But just to give some historical context to this, I took a look at pitchers from the last 50 years who (a) recorded a three-year WAR similar to the +14.6 mark Quintana has put up since 2014 started, (b) also recorded an innings total within 50 of Quintana’s overall mark from age 25 through 27, and (c) produced an age-27 WAR within +1.5 of Quintana’s +4.8 mark this past season. That search returned nine names. Here is how those pitchers performed from ages 28 through 31.
Those are some exceptional comparisons. Only one player on that list failed to deliver a decent return, and Dwight Gooden’s off-field demons are well known, making him a poor expectation of what Quintana’s path might be. Note, too, that many of those pitchers don’t have great strikeout numbers, relying, like Quintana, on control. Guys like Haren and Lackey were also seen more as good pitchers than legitimate aces due to their lack of ace stuff, and yet, they just kept getting people out.
Quintana might have been playing second fiddle to Sale the past few years, but the team trading for Quintana isn’t getting just a run-of-the-mill good starter. Jose Quintana is excellent, and there are plenty of reasons to think he’s going to keep pitching well for a while.
The price for Sale was always going to be higher than the price for Quintana. That said, there’s a credible argument that Quintana and his bargain contract should be nearly as attractive to teams looking for high-end pitching as Sale was. The White Sox asked for the moon and appeared to have gotten it in trading their No. 1 starter; while they might aim their sights slightly lower in a return for their No. 2, the ask should still be sky high.