Cubs’ title defense may finally start, but Quintana more about future

The biggest trade between the Cubs and White Sox in at least a generation could be the move that breaks the logjam in the National League Central and finally makes the Cubs’ championship defense actually look like one.

But that has a lot less to do with why the Cubs spent their top two prospects for Jose Quintana than what the left-hander does for their chances to win next year. And the year after.

“I do like what this trade gives us a chance to do in 2017,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “but the primary factor was really what it does for our four-plus-year window that we’re looking at here going forward.”

If any player from the outside was going to have a chance to spur the 43-45 Cubs to a strong finish, it certainly figured to be a starting pitcher with an All-Star track record who could join a sagging rotation that has been the Achilles heel of the team’s moribund season.

Jose Quintana

Quintana will make his Cubs debut Sunday in Baltimore.

But the Cubs need more than one pitcher, even a productive newcomer, to pick up the considerable slack necessary to win a division in which they trail the leader by 5½ games — never mind what’s necessary to make another deep postseason run.

A Cubs’ rotation that led the majors with a collective 2.96 ERA last year, and had two Cy Young Award finalists, is back with a 4.66 ERA that ranks eighth in the National League.

What made Quintana worth Baseball America’s No. 5 prospect (outfielder Eloy Jimenez) and No. 83 prospect (right-hander Dylan Cease), along with two other minor leaguers, is that he can backfill a rotation that loses former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and veteran John Lackey to free agency after this year.

The trade left the Cubs without any players on Baseball America’s  top-100 prospect list.

“This deal had zero-percent chance of happening without both Eloy and Cease in it,” Epstein said.

Quintana, 28, is under club control through 2020, with $3.2 million left on this year’s salary, $8.95 million coming in 2018 and club options the following two years for $10.5 million each.

“He’s the type of pitcher we’ve been trying to acquire unsuccessfully now for a long time,” said Epstein, who traded for Mike Montgomery a year ago and for Eddie Butler over the winter in deals meant to address the long-term starting pitching deficit. “In the end it ended up being a surprising dance partner for us, but I think a great baseball trade all around.”

The Cubs have talked for months about the need to land two starters by next season to have a chance to sustain their window of opportunity to win with this hitting core — and the fear they might enter the offseason still needing both.

Epstein, who said it was “surprisingly easy” to deal with the crosstown rival as though it were any other trading partner, had talked to Sox general manager Rick Hahn early last month about Quintana but was discouraged by the asking price.

The Cubs believed they were out of consideration for the 2016 All-Star until Hahn reached out Sunday morning, leading to the deal that was finalized Wednesday night, Epstein said.

He said part of the work involved both the scouting and analytics departments “digging deep” to determine whether Quintana’s 1-7, 5.60-ERA performance the first two months of the season was a predictive red flag or whether there were “fixable factors” involved with the pitcher who has a career 3.51 ERA.

“Our assessment on both fronts,” Epstein said, “was that he is the same guy, and our staff felt that way with conviction.”

The front office is looking at the 2017 season and its willingness to add more before the July 31 trade deadline with less conviction.

Epstein said they’ll “step back and survey the rest of the market,” but added, “a lot of it will depend on how we play.

“We need to play well coming out of the gates here, and we’ll assess what we’re trying to do in large part based on how we play and where we are in the standings, and how realistic we think a World Series run is this year,” he said. “Everything is still on the table for this year.”

Epstein hasn’t ruled out trading from the young core on the major league roster to acquire more pitching. But it probably would take another blockbuster-level deal.

“We’ve been consistent all along that we don’t have any untouchables,” he said. “But I think you can read into today’s move just how much faith we have in this group of guys. You own the fact that we had a bad first half. But I think it’s important not to overreact to that.

“This group has won one World Series, and our goal is to win more. And we needed to and need to add starting pitching in order to make that happen. You can read into the fact that this trade was made without touching the major-league team at all.

“We’re certainly not looking to sell low on members of our core, and we hope in fact to keep it intact if possible and win more World Series with this group.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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