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Jose Quintana seeks to be a Cubs ace from fifth spot

MESA, Ariz. – In just two years, Jose Quintana has gone from the Opening Day starter for the White Sox to the presumptive fifth starter for the Cubs this year.

Whether that says more about the 2017 White Sox or the 2019 Cubs, Quintana seems pretty confident it doesn’t say anything about where he expects to end up this season.

“My first goal is to get back to 200 innings, or be close,” he said. “I did that before, and I think if I do that again I’ll help my team a lot.

“And for sure I want to go back to the All-Star game,” he added. “That’s the reason I worked a lot during the off-season, trying to get the first half 100 percent.”

Quintana pitched three scoreless innings against the Royals on Wednesday in his second start of the spring.

Quintana, who looked sharp in his second start of the spring Wednesday against the Royals, was so inconsistent early last season that 10 starts into the year his ERA was 4.78 despite four starts in which he didn’t allow an earned run.

He struggled again in August, and it eventually took pitching well in eight of his final nine starts to get his ERA down to 4.03 – second-highest of his career.

The only thing worse than the on-again, off-again struggles might have been the incessant comparisons to Eloy Jimenez, the top prospect who went to the Sox in the midsummer trade in ’17 – a slugging outfielder who was tearing up the minor leagues on a collision course with a 2019 big-league debut.

But Quintana has continually downplayed the comparisons.

And whether it has played even a small role in his renewed determination heading into this season, he seems more focused on what he can do for a team playing to prove its competitive window isn’t about to close.

He said after pitching a scoreless three innings Wednesday that it doesn’t matter to him where he falls in the rotation order, even if it’s down a spot from last year when he opened as the fourth starter ahead of only Tyler Chatwood.

“I just want to help my team,” he said.

But he smiled when reminded that he started Opening Day just two years ago, coming off his 2016 All-Star appearance.

“Yeah, one time,” he said. “It’s cool. It’s really good when you are an ace for your team.”

But he also added: “I feel like that [now].”

As in trying to pitch like that ace whenever he gets his turn.

That’s where the emphasis this spring on improving his changeup comes in. He wants to make it as effective as his fastball and curve, to be able to use in all counts this season – like he did Wednesday, when he even got Bubba Starling to swing through it for a strikeout.

The way he sees it, that could give the Cubs an entire rotation of aces.

“This is the best rotation I’ve been on,” Quintana said. “A couple of these guys have won championships; they know a lot about pitching; they have a lot of experience. It’s cool to be around and to be able to go to the mound every five days behind them with a good opportunity to win games.

“If we’re healthy we’ll have a really good year.”