José Quintana, Baseball's Silent Assassin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because spring is in the air.
By Matt Foley
Baseball’s gaze weighs heavy on José Quintana. The 28-year-old left-handed White Sox ace never asked for the attention. But this March, in leading his native Colombia to its first World Baseball Classic, Quintana bears on his shoulders the aspirations of a nation. His next order of business? Restore glory to Chicago’s South Side.
This season, for the first time in his still-young career, “Q” started on opening day, an honor bestowed upon a team’s best pitcher. But Quintana’s Sox are in a rebuild year. In an effort to reload the farm system, they traded former ace — and Quintana’s best friend — Chris Sale last December. And now, on the heels of his first All-Star selection, Quintana is the hottest name on the trade circuit. Soon, the White Sox will decide whether to sell high on the fan favorite or mortgage their future on the burgeoning star. If Quintana is traded, he’ll likely lead a contender deep into the playoffs — something he’s yet to experience — this fall. But, if the White Sox hold onto their man, he’ll be the leader of a young club with future World Series aspirations. “We can compete this year; I just need to keep doing my job,” he tells OZY.
“I haven’t been in this game a long time,” Quintana’s teammate and fellow pitcher Carlos Rodon told MLB.com. “But he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
In today’s era of high-priced flamethrowers destined for Tommy John surgery, Quintana is cut from anachronistic cloth. His fastball rests in the respectable, albeit not mind-blowing, low 90s. Pinpoint accuracy and fluid mechanics make him the perfect candidate for a long, healthy career. Quintana’s aggressive mound presence has led to four straight seasons with at least 200 innings pitched, a feat matched only by the most effective starters in baseball. His ascent to stardom has come over a decade devoted to the craft.
Raised in Arjona, Colombia, a small town 10 miles from the country’s northern coast, Quintana grew up in a rare swath of the country where baseball rivals soccer in popularity, mirroring the fervor found in nearby Central America and the Caribbean. As a child, Quintana played ball in the dirt streets, a simple way to “stay entertained and out of trouble.” Soon, his talent transcended modest settings. In 2006, 17-year old Quintana signed an international free agent deal with the New York Mets. But just three games into his “rookie ball” season in the Venezuelan Summer League, the teenager failed a performance-enhancing drug test. Quintana maintains that he took medication for a back problem, but the Mets released him and, at least momentarily, his professional dreams were toast. He’d never set foot in America. “For four months I was out of baseball,” says Quintana. “I thought I was finished.”
He’s been effective even with his team’s below-average support. Most importantly, he gets better every year.
After missing 2007, “Q” signed with the Yankees. His minor league coaches toyed with his role, testing his merit as a relief pitcher, and he never advanced higher than Single-A. Quintana became a free agent following the 2011 season, and his future, once again, hung in the balance. In Chicago, though, Quintana found a major league team desperate for help. The White Sox signed him before the 2012 season, sent him to Double-A for nine games and then promptly promoted him to the big time. In the four and a half seasons since, Quintana has exceeded expectations. His 46–46 win-loss record looks mediocre, but a 3.41 career ERA and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings show he’s been effective even with his team’s below-average support. Most importantly, he gets better every year. Last season, he earned his first All-Star game appearance and posted the lowest ERA of his career.
Quintana chalks up the success in part to Don Cooper, who’s coached White Sox pitchers at every level of the organization since 2002, mentoring greats like Mark Buerhle, Jake Peavy and Sale. “When his career is over, he’s going to know that he got everything out of the ability he was blessed with,” Cooper told Christopher Russo on MLB Network’s High Heat. “This kid is not going to let his chance slip by.”
That doggedness is exactly what endears Quintana to White Sox fans. While the Cubs won their curse-breaking 2016 World Series title, the White Sox finished the season with a fourth-straight losing campaign. But ask any South Sider what separates them from the lovable Cubs and you’ll hear not of the record but of a blue-collar toughness. The Sox, at their best, embody South Side pride: the gritty stepchild with a chip on his shoulder — especially after their rivals’ victory. As a formerly overlooked prospect from a nation where baseball was an afterthought, no player understands his fans’ plight better than Quintana.
If the Sox lose Quintana, it might be to Houston, Pittsburgh or the Yankees — all rumored suitors. Dave Williams, a Barstool Sports White Sox writer and co-host of the popular baseball podcast Red Line Radio, says the right deal could cause the Sox to part with their star. The Sox know Quintana’s value, but they won’t trade him for anything less than a few young potential stars. “You don’t trade that asset unless the return blows you away,” says Williams. Chicago’s general manager, Rick Hahn, maintains a high asking price — a starting pitcher of Quintana’s caliber makes the trade “too important to force the issue based on impatience.” Yes, Quintana remains in town — for now. Perhaps the other teams are waiting for another season for him to prove his worth.
But for that matter, so is the South Side. And so, too, is Colombia.