Tonight the Chicago Cubs send left-hander Jose Quintana to the mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game One of the 2017 National League Championship series. Quintana (like fellow Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks and Astros starter Dallas Keuchel) wasn’t a hot prospect in the minor leagues but has developed into a consistently above-aveage major league starter. Let’s take a look.
Quintana was originally signed by the New York Mets out of Colombia in 2006, but pitched just five innings in the Venezuelan Summer League. He missed all of 2007 with a drug-related suspension due to usage of a banned nutritional supplement, then drew his release from the Metropolitans. The New York Yankees picked him up as a free agent, and he pitched very well in the Dominican Summer League in both 2008 (1.96 ERA in 55 innings) and 2009 (2.32 ERA in 50 innings).
Quintana pitched 38.2 innings in 2010, split between the Gulf Coast League Yankees and Charleston in the South Atlantic League, performing decently (3.26 ERA, 44/18 K/BB) but not rocketing to the top of any prospect lists. He finally got some attention in 2011, with a fine season for High-A Tampa, posting a 2.91 ERA and a 88/28 K/BB in 102 innings with 86 hits allowed. The White Sox picked him up as a minor league free agent in November 2011, after the Yankees decided not to protect him on the 40-man roster.
Here’s what I wrote about him at the beginning of 2012:
It says a lot about the condition of the White Sox farm system that Jose Quintana is one of their better prospects. A Colombian signed by the Mets in 2006, he was released in ’07, signed by the Yankees in ’08, and finally reached North America in 2010. He had a fine season in the Florida State League last year, but became a minor league free agent and signed a contract with the White Sox in November.
Quintana is actually a pretty interesting prospect. He has solid command of an 88-91 MPH fastball, a nice changeup, and an average curve. He’s tough on lefties and has a shot as a fourth/fifth starter or a useable relief arm. I actually like him, but the point about the White Sox is that, for most organizations, a minor league free agent isn’t going to immediately become one of your better prospects. Grade C, but interesting.
I saw some sleeper potential in him, but I was too busy saying snarky things about the White Sox farm system in this comment to focus on the player. I should have expanded on why I liked him and done less bitching. A C+ would also have been more appropriate, and even that would have been an underestimate.
Lesson learned: don’t spend time bashing organizations, or rather, if you must bash an organization, don’t short-change the player report.
After an impressive spring training that saw him draw the notice of the White Sox coaching staff, Quintana posted a 2.77 ERA with a 41/14 K/BB in 49 innings for Double-A Birmingham before being promoted to the majors in May skipping Triple-A.
Overall, in his minor league career, Quintana posted a 2.76 ERA with a 334/128 K/BB in 300 innings, with just 221 hits allowed.
Quintana has been solidly effective since arriving in the majors, posting a 23.5 fWAR over six seasons with the White Sox and the Cubs. He’s 57-57, 3.53 ERA, 115 ERA+. His peak season so far was 2014 at 5.1 fWAR but 2015 and 2016 were almost as good at 4.7 each.
Durable, consistent, effective. So why wasn’t he a hot prospect?
Part of it was the unusual background, as a guy who had a drug suspension early in his career, had been released, and who became a minor league free agent at a young age. Part of it was simple development: in the minors his fastball was generally 87-91 MPH, not bad for a lefty but not the kind of stuff that jumps out. His secondary pitches were all considered average and he was unproven at any level higher than A-ball when the White Sox signed him.
Yet he was ready for the majors after just nine Double-A starts.
Quintana throws harder now than he did when he was younger, 90-95 MPH, enough to make a difference since it increases velocity separation with his secondaries. Said secondaries are better than they were in A-ball, too.
White Sox scouts Daraka Shaheed and Joe Siers, who saw him pitch in the 2011 Florida State League, keyed on the potential to improve these pitches.
"I thought he would have to develop a better changeup," said Siers, who is in his sixth year with the White Sox. "But he located to both sides. He threw two types of breaking balls. His slider was more of a cutter, and I think [White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] has tightened it up to be more of a true cutter.
"That breaking ball was OK. He could vary the angle, get depth or widen it out to a left-hander. But I thought the changeup would be key. If the changeup gets better, I thought, 'My gosh. There's no telling what he could do.'"
Chalk one up to the scouts who saw Quintana’s potential, the coaches who helped him refine that potential, and Quintana’s own efforts to improve his game.