CHICAGO -- Who you got as the best 1-2 combination of starting pitchers in baseball? There's no one answer, so go ahead and argue the point.You couldn't go wrong with the Cubs' Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Kenta
CHICAGO -- Who you got as the best 1-2 combination of starting pitchers in baseball? There's no one answer, so go ahead and argue the point.
You couldn't go wrong with the Cubs' Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda or the Nationals' Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Ditto the White Sox's Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Maybe even the Indians' Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco when they're at the top of their games.
If we switch the question to make it the most effective 1-2 combination thus far in 2016, you have to go with either Arrieta and Jason Hammel (not Lester) or Sale and Quintana. No one else can stake a claim.
Sale and Quintana, who sit back-to-back in Robin Ventura's rotation, will go into starts against the Indians on Tuesday and Wednesday a combined 14-3 with a 1.77 ERA in 18 starts. They have worked a little more than seven innings per start. Arrieta and Hammel are 13-1 with a 1.72 ERA, but they have averaged slightly more than 6 1/3 innings, with a big difference between the Cubs' ace and No. 4 starter.
But now consider this question: Which is the most impactful 1-2 combination?
That has to be Sale and Quintana. There can be no argument.
After all, if the White Sox didn't have them, they could be in a rebuilding mode, not leading the American League Central.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn confirmed on Monday that the presence of Sale and Quintana, both signed to long-term extensions, persuaded management not to cut the payroll and go young after a 99-loss season in 2013.
"When we look back to 2013, the team lost 99 games and didn't have a farm system that was well respected, and had a roster with some aging players and big contracts on it. We looked at all our alternatives and one of them was certainly doing an extended rebuild, a five-year look toward the future to get ourselves back toward our championship way,'' Hahn said. "One of the main arguments against doing that was we had Sale, Quintana under control. That was an awfully good starting point toward getting back to being competitive quickly.''
Sale, who had been an All-Star in 2012 and '13, had signed a long-term deal that runs through 2017 with options for '18 and '19. Quintana, who threw 200 innings in '13, was under control through '18 (and has since signed a deal that runs through '18 with options for '19 and '20). Both were coming off their age-24 seasons.
"Starting with Chris, who we viewed as an ace, and Jose, who we viewed as a rising star and one of the best left-handers in the game despite being not as well known as Chris at the time, we knew we had something,'' Hahn said. "Their presence went a long way with toward making us more comfortable with a quicker, more aggressive path back toward competitiveness.''
Trying to build a postseason team behind their twin aces, the White Sox signed free agents Jose Abreu in 2014 and kept making moves the past two offseasons, adding Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Zach Duke and Jimmy Rollins, among others.
It might have been different if they just had Sale and not Quintana, who is turning into one of the biggest stars ever signed as a Minor League free agent.
Would the White Sox have been as aggressive if they had only one of the two? Would that have argued for a rebuild?
"It might have,'' Hahn said. "We would have been that much farther away. You'd be looking for another young front-of-the-rotation type starter to pair with the other, and you perhaps would have been better served looking further down the road than just two or three years out. You could use that one asset you had under control to get multiple ones that fit a future timeline. But having them both here made our resolve stronger to get this thing right while they both were in their prime.''
Both Sale and Quintana are 27, and they have continued to get better.
Sale is the first pitcher since Sal Maglie in 1952 to start 9-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA after nine starts. He'll try to make it 10-0 against the Indians on Tuesday night.
Having a starter do that would be great for any time. But it's been even better for the White Sox because Quintana (5-3, 1.98) has been almost as good.
While Quintana entered this season with a 33-34 record, he isn't really having a breakout season. He's just avoided the no-decisions and the breakdowns behind him that have haunted him in the past.
Quintana has kept a low profile, yet he had more 200-innings seasons than Sale (3-2) and a lower ERA than him last season (3.36-3.41).
"Certainly there's been some modest improvement this year,'' Hahn said. "That said, [Quintana has] been such a victim of bad luck, whether lack or run support, bad defense or the bullpen not doing their job in previous years that sort of kept him from getting the national recognition he deserved. We joked that there's going to be a season when Quintana is going to put up a 4.50 ERA and win 25 games because he's just due so much good luck and good karma coming around because of all the time served on the other side of the spectrum.''
The White Sox are 15-3 in starts by Sale and Quintana and 12-16 behind their other starters. They've started 36.5 percent of the games that Ventura has managed, but he never takes them for granted. How could he?
"They've been impactful for a couple years for us -- the innings, knowing you're going to be in the hunt to win a game,'' Ventura said. "That's the biggest thing. When you send those guys out there, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be in a position to win that game.''
If not for them, Ventura wouldn't be managing a first-place team, and players like Abreu, Frazier and Robertson probably would be playing somewhere else. That might be the best way to measure the impact of Sale and Quintana.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.