CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs found the pitching help they were looking for just a few miles from Wrigley Field. They hope it will give the scuffling team the kick it needs.
The defending World Series champions acquired left-handed ace Jose Quintana from the White Sox on Thursday in a major trade between crosstown rivals that could shake up the NL Central race.
By landing the 2016 All-Star, the Cubs made it clear they’re not giving up on a difficult season after arriving at the break two games under .500. They also added a pitcher who figures to be a key piece in the rotation for at least the next few years.
“We had a bad first half,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “We did. We own that. We know we can do better.”
The Cubs trail Milwaukee by 5 1/2 games in the division at 43-45 after ending a 108-year championship drought last fall. They believe they are set up to contend for years to come with stars such as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
By trading for Quintana, they brought in an elite starter who is under club control through 2020. They had to give up two top prospects in outfielder Eloy Jimenez and right-handed pitcher Dylan Cease along with minor league infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete.
Quintana has pitched better lately after a slow start and is 4-8 with a 4.49 ERA in 18 starts this season. He won a career-high 13 games last season with a personal-best 3.20 ERA while making his first All-Star team and is 50-54 with a 3.51 ERA since debuting with the White Sox in 2012. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said letting him go was a difficult choice for the rebuilding team.
“He’s a true professional who had to deal with everything from poor run support to the bullpen occasionally letting him down, the defense letting him down,” Hahn said. “He certainly never complained, never threw his arms up in the air, never rolled his eyes, never expressed any displeasure with his teammates. Instead, he was always supportive and continued to go about his business and set a wonderful example for the other young players in our clubhouse.”
Epstein called the White Sox a “surprising dance partner” because of their proximity. But the deal makes sense given each other’s needs.
Quintana joins a team that came into the season expected to dominate again on the heels of a 103-win season.
Instead, the Cubs are struggling to come through with big hits. They are batting .230 with runners in scoring position — 27th in the majors. And the starting rotation has been shaky, with a 4.66 ERA that ranks 17th in the majors.
Ace Jon Lester got pounded by Pittsburgh for 10 runs in two-thirds of an inning in his most recent start. Jake Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner, has been inconsistent. Kyle Hendricks has been sidelined since June 4 because of tendinitis in his right hand, and John Lackey has a 5.20 ERA.
Quintana is scheduled to make his Cubs debut at Baltimore on Sunday.
“We know we’re getting a very quality, a very consistent starting pitcher who’s also a great person and great teammate,” Epstein said. “He couldn’t be a better fit for our situation.”
Hahn said he and Epstein exchanged text messages shortly after the draft. There wasn’t much communication between them until Hahn reached out on Sunday. Hahn told Epstein at that point any trade would have to involve Jimenez and Cease. Talks heated up over the next few days before the teams agreed to the deal on Wednesday night.
Epstein initially thought the chances of trading for Quintana were slim. He said the White Sox asked for reigning NL MVP Bryant when he inquired about a deal for All-Star pitcher Chris Sale in the offseason. Though they paid a high price in prospects, the Cubs didn’t have to include any current major leaguers to get Quintana.
The White Sox, who were close to trading the pitcher in the offseason, continue to load up on young players. They started to rebuild after four straight losing seasons last winter when they traded Sale to Boston and outfielder Adam Eaton to Washington. They acquired two of baseball’s top prospects in return, getting second baseman Yoan Moncada from the Red Sox and right-hander Lucas Giolito from the Nationals.
The White Sox also signed prized Cuban prospect Luis Robert to a minor league deal in May.
“I think we’ve made great strides in the last 12 months,” Hahn said. “I think we’ve had two very fine drafts. I think we’ve made potentially a tremendously impactful international signing in Luis Robert. With the trades, we’ve acquired some very highly regarded, potentially impact, players. In terms of how close we are to the end of this process? I don’t have an answer for that yet.”