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Seeking spark, Cubs pay up for Quintana

MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Never say that Major League teams aren't extremely competitive. Sometimes even winning a World Series isn't enough to quench an appetite.

The Cubs have maintained their sense of urgency after Game 7 against the Indians, and they showed it in a big way by sending their best hitting prospect and their best pitching prospect to the White Sox for left-hander Jose Quintana. They love that the 28-year-old Quintana is under team control through 2020, but this trade is at least as much about the present as the future.

CHICAGO -- Never say that Major League teams aren't extremely competitive. Sometimes even winning a World Series isn't enough to quench an appetite.

The Cubs have maintained their sense of urgency after Game 7 against the Indians, and they showed it in a big way by sending their best hitting prospect and their best pitching prospect to the White Sox for left-hander Jose Quintana. They love that the 28-year-old Quintana is under team control through 2020, but this trade is at least as much about the present as the future.

Cubs bolster rotation by acquiring Quintana

Have you checked the standings lately? A Cubs team that sees itself in the middle of a long run of postseason appearances is 43-45 and 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central. It is 7 1/2 games behind the Rockies for the second NL Wild Card spot.

While the Cubs have monitored Quintana's availability in the past, it was only recently that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein swallowed hard and decided he's worth the huge price the White Sox have been demanding. He was also surprised that the Sox would do the deal without demanding someone like Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez, saying that Kris Bryant was included in the asking price the Cubs were given for Chris Sale.
 
Rather than ask for a Major League player, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was clear the deal would have to include both slugging right fielder Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, a 21-year-old right-hander currently tearing up the Class A Midwest League with a triple-digit fastball. The Cubs concluded the long-term sacrifice was better than the short-term pain of missing the postseason.

Video: White Sox acquire four prospects for Jose Quintana

Outside of maybe the Sammy Sosa-George Bell trade in 1992, this is the biggest crosstown trade ever in Chicago. It was a 4-for-1 package (including less highly regarded Minor Leaguers Bryant Flete and Matt Rose) that speaks to the huge demand for controllable starting pitchers, and maybe also Epstein's concern that Quintana would wind up in Milwaukee.

Hahn spent the All-Star break taking phone calls from a lot of teams about Quintana, including even some like the Braves who aren't currently in a race. He declined to name the other interested parties, but the Astros, Yankees and Brewers were likely among them.

"It was very strong,'' Hahn said about the interest in Quintana, who is 4-8 with a 4.49 ERA that was higher before he recently strung together 19 consecutive scoreless innings. "We had multiple conversations while the medical review was going on yesterday. Clubs were still calling us even though we said we were pretty far down the road (on a trade with an unnamed team) and were exchanging medicals. They wanted to be included if something did fall apart.''

No team was as driven to get a deal done as the Cubs.

"The highest level of aggressive and willingness to part with premium talent in Jimenez and Cease,'' Hahn said. "They deserve a world of credit. Obviously we all know they're very much in their window to contend for championships and to their credit, they are seizing that opportunity to make the most out of the day.''

Video: Hahn discusses acquiring four prospects for Quintana

Epstein points to Quintana's value both this season and beyond, saying the trade reflects his faith in the team's core.

"We own the fact that we had a bad first half, but I think it's important not to overreact to that,'' he said. "It's important to take a step back and realize where you are. We're in the first stages of a long run with this group of guys. This group has won one World Series and our goal is to win more."

There's little the Cubs have done well to this point, which is why closer Wade Davis was their only player who accompanied Joe Maddon to the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard. Adding Quintana won't cure what has ailed them in a season of across-the-board underachievement, but it does address their biggest need, both now and in the future.

The starting rotation that was head and shoulders above everyone else in 2016 (81-39, 2.96 ERA) ranks eighth in the NL with a 4.66 ERA. Jon Lester has been the most consistent starter, and he was knocked out in the first inning by the Pirates on Sunday during a 10-inning first inning that hammered home the depths of Cubs despair.

This hasn't been a vintage season for Quintana, who started slowly after pitching brilliantly for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He's been looking more like himself lately -- 2-0 with a 2.43 ERA, holding opponents to a .211 batting average and throwing strikes with 62 percent of his pitches in his past five starts (all White Sox victories).

Quintana will work alongside Lester and Jake Arrieta in a rotation that should soon get Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey back from the disabled list. And you can pencil him in alongside Lester and Hendricks in 2018 and beyond, as the contract Hahn negotiated when he was an assistant GM is guaranteed through '18, with club options for '19 and '20.

That's no small consideration given that both Arrieta and Lackey could leave as free agents after this season, with no sure replacements in waiting. Eddie Butler (4-3, 3.86 ERA in 11 starts) has looked sharp at times this season, but Mike Montgomery hasn't been as sharp as a starter this year as he was as the Cubs' No. 6 late last season.

Acting now, not after the season, demonstrates how badly the Cubs want to make it two World Series in a row, or at least to return to the NL Championship Series for a third straight season.

It specifically seems to speak to the faith they continue to have in Schwarber, who along with Jason Heyward is blocking Jimenez's path to the Major Leagues.

Like shortstop Gleyber Torres, whom the Cubs traded to the Yankees in a deal for Aroldis Chapman last July, Jimenez is a highly projectable two-way prospect who is the exact kind of player Epstein loves to collect. His development was slowed by a shoulder injury in Spring Training, but he seems likely to reach Double-A as a 20-year-old this season and could push for a Major League spot in late 2018.

With the addition of Quintana and a strong second half from Schwarber, the Cubs would be a different team than the one that has gone 18-24 since since May 25. They need to go 47-27 to reach 90 wins.

That's five victories short of the goal Epstein always sets, but it might be enough to see what they can wring out of Arrieta and Lester in the postseason. If anyone wondered about the Cubs' direction, that's clear now.

Full speed ahead.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Jake Arrieta, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Eddie Butler, Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Mike Montgomery, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, Kyle Schwarber