Heeere's José: How White Sox ace José Quintana became a star, MLB's top trade target

At 17, his career looked like it was over before it began, and at 22, he was a minor league free agent. But just six years later, José Quintana could be a player who changes the pennant race.
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Viewers of The Tonight Show on NBC could be forgiven if they weren’t familiar with the young man speaking Spanish with Jimmy Fallon on April 18. White Sox lefthander José Quintana doesn’t have the same name recognition as the rest of that night’s guests, including Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey and Senator Elizabeth Warren. But the 28-year-old Colombian wasn't there to promote himself or his team; instead, he had made the trek to 30 Rock to say thank you to a man who had served as his inadvertent English teacher.

Years before Quintana became one of MLB’s best starters on Chicago’s South Side, he was a no-name minor leaguer toiling in the lower reaches of the Yankees’ system. In 2010, New York sent Quintana, then 21, to Tampa to play in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League; it was his first time in the United States. Armed with only a few words of English, he struggled to communicate, and despite ESL classes provided by the team, he felt he needed more help. So at night, Quintana turned to television, as so many other Latino players have done, and quickly discovered Fallon, then hosting his eponymous late-night show.

“I liked him, because with his accent, I could more easily pick up a few words and create phrases and know more or less what he was talking about,” Quintana says in Spanish. “I started to learn that way.”

Quintana watched Fallon’s show regularly, and over time, his English improved. By the start of the 2014 season, he felt comfortable enough to have full conversations with his American teammates and to take questions from the media without going through a translator. But it wasn’t until this spring that news of the baseball player who taught himself English through a talk show caught the attention of The Tonight Show’s producers, who reached out to Quintana and asked: When the White Sox come to New York, would you like to be on the show?

Quintana quickly said yes, and so on a cold April afternoon, the eager student stood outside NBC’s studios in midtown Manhattan to tape a short segment in which he repaid the favor of years of free English lessons by teaching Fallon a few Spanish phrases.

Quintana’s time in the spotlight was brief, but it likely won’t be his last. Thanks to the blockbuster off-season trade that sent perennial All-Star lefthander Chris Sale to Boston, Quintana is the undisputed ace of the White Sox’ rotation—a title he earned thanks to his stellar work over the last four years, including a 3.35 ERA that ranks ninth-best in baseball among starters with 800 or more innings thrown. Those results, combined with Chicago's pivot to a rebuilding phase, have made the perennially underrated Quintana arguably the most sought-after pitcher in the major leagues.

It’s an unexpected place to find a pitcher who doesn’t throw especially hard, was never a top prospect and got the interest of only one team when he found himself a free agent six years ago. But just like Quintana tackled the task of learning a new language, so too did he slowly but effectively build himself up into one of the game’s top pitchers.

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Growing up in northern Colombia, Quintana had dreams of becoming a professional soccer player—he idolized national team midfielder Carlos Valderrama, as most boys did in the 1990s—but all the available spots on his small town's youth teams were full. Instead, inspired by the successes of longtime big league shortstops Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, Colombia’s patron saints of baseball, he turned his attention to the diamond at 10 years old, first as a centerfielder and first baseman, then moving to the mound after coaches noticed how strong his arm was.

Signed by the Mets at age 16 in 2006 for just $50,000, Quintana appeared in all of three games for the organization in the Venezuelan Summer League before being hit with a 50-game performance enhancing drugs suspension in March 2007, which he says was the result of a medicine he’d been prescribed for back pain that contained a banned substance. The Mets, who had a zero-tolerance policy for PED use in the minors, released him. At 17 years old, Quintana was worried his dream was already finished. “It was a very hard time, the most difficult of my career,” he says.

Hoping to attract the attention of another team, he pitched in the Colombian winter league and tried to figure out plans for his life if baseball fell through. He thought of going back to school, but the Yankees caught sight of him, signed him and sent him to their Dominican Summer League affiliate in 2008 for a second chance at a major league career.

“I’m thankful to have gotten their support in that moment,” he says. “Who knows where I would have ended up otherwise?”

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For the next four years, Quintana pitched well but received little attention. In 2010, he had a 3.26 ERA at two levels, and in '11, he put up a 2.92 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 102 innings at Class A, but that wasn’t enough to earn him a longer look from the parent team. He reached free agency that year because he had spent six years in the minors, and while the Yankees offered him a new contract, it came without a coveted 40-man roster spot. “They told me they didn’t have space,” Quintana says.

(Among the players the Yankees kept over Quintana: outfielder Zoilo Almonte, pitcher D.J. Mitchell and infielder Corban Joseph, who played a combined 53 games for New York. “We looked at [Quintana] as a fringy prospect,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told the New York Post in 2012. “It was a numbers game, but right now it does not look like a good decision.”)

While Quintana searched for a team, a pair of White Sox scouts, Daraka Shaheed and Joe Siers, were convinced they’d found a hidden gem. They had both seen Quintana while scouting the Florida State League in 2011, and despite his lack of velocity—he threw just 90 mph at the time—they thought he was a pitcher with potential. “He showed you everything you wanted to see,” Siers says. “Very good delivery, clean arm action and the ability to work both sides of the plate.”

Perusing a list of minor league free agents at season’s end, both Shaheed and Siers were surprised that Quintana was available—“When I saw his name, I was like, ooh wow,” Siers says—and persuaded the White Sox to sign him. “Both Daraka and Joe pounded the table and said, ‘This guy has a ton of upside, a ton of pitchability. He’s the type of guy you might be able to build off of,’” says Chicago general manager Rick Hahn.

Returned to the rotation and sent to Double A to start the 2012 season, Quintana spent only six weeks there before the White Sox brought him up on May 7 to take the ball for the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians. He threw 5 2/3 shutout innings, and though he was immediately sent back down, three weeks later he was with the Sox again, this time for good. Quintana finished the year with a 3.76 ERA in 136 1/3 innings, a surprising performance from an unheralded rookie—and just the beginning of what he would do.

“I thought he had a chance to be a back-end starter,” Siers says. “Obviously I was wrong—and I’m glad I was wrong.”

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There's a long understood guarantee with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper: He will teach every starter he works with a cut fastball. Quintana was no exception; just over a quarter of the pitches he threw in 2012 were cutters, which he learned in his first spring training with Chicago. But aside from adding that pitch, he made no major changes to his delivery or his repertoire. To Cooper, all the pieces were already there; watching Quintana’s major league debut, he remembers turning to then-manager Robin Ventura and saying, “We can do something with this guy.”

“He’s got a good delivery, and that’s key for anybody,” Cooper says now. “The command of his pitches can come because of that, and all the pitches can be taught to someone with a good delivery.”

The focus was on making smaller changes, and Quintana—a fast learner who "never forgets anything you say,” says Cooper—was quickly able to make them. Cooper stressed the importance of finding a consistent pace to allow Quintana to conserve energy and go deeper into games; he went from 5.8 innings per start in 2012 to 6.1 in '13, the first of four straight 200-inning campaigns. Cooper wanted Quintana to throw more first-pitch strikes; from '12 to '13, he went from 60.9% first-pitch strikes to 65.9, and he hasn’t fallen below 65 in a full season since. Cooper tasked Quintana with improving his fastball command and location; opposing batters went from hitting .282 with a .471 slugging percentage on his four-seamer in 2012 to .224 and .347, respectively, the next year.

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All of those adjustments, as well as a velocity jump to 92 mph on his fastball, soon paid dividends. In 2013, Quintana posted a 3.51 ERA, upped his strikeout rate (going from 5.3 per nine to 7.4), and was worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement, 11th best among starting pitchers that year. He was even better the next season, with a 3.32 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine. The lefty had quickly become a fixture in Chicago’s rotation, though paltry win totals (thanks to a lack of run support, he won just 40 games combined from 2013 to '16; in that same span, Max Scherzer led the league with 73) and the presence of Sale made him one of the game’s better-kept secrets.

“He was every bit as steady as Chris Sale, but Sale did it more sexy,” Cooper says. “People are enamored by speed and velocity. I like velocity as much as the next guy, but I’d rather have 92 and 93 to the glove like Quintana does than 94 or 95 nowhere near it.”

The combination of Sale and Quintana should have made the White Sox formidable, but the team squandered the four years in which both were full-time starters; Chicago’s best record in that span was 78–84 last season. After a 2016 season in which the White Sox got off to a 17–8 start in April but rapidly fell back to earth, a frustrated Hahn took stock of his roster and the organization’s barren farm system and decided a change was in order. Following the path set by the Sox’ newly crowned neighbors on the North Side, Hahn and his front office elected to pursue a total rebuild last off-season—one that has made Quintana vitally important to the White Sox’ future, whether he’s a part of it or not.

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Sale’s trade to the Red Sox surprised almost everyone in baseball, not least of all Quintana, who woke up on the morning of Dec. 6 in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta to find out that his good friend and rotation-mate was suddenly gone.

On paper, Sale and Quintana were a mismatch. The former, a heralded prospect who was in the majors two months after being drafted 13th overall in 2010, was all 97-mph heat from a delivery that looked like an Erector set thrown into a running blender, and he wasn't afraid to speak his mind. The latter, meanwhile, was quiet and reserved, boasting a simple and clean motion that could have come out of a kinesiology textbook. Sale got the headlines, earning five straight All-Star nods and four straight top-five finishes in the AL Cy Young voting, but Quintana was nearly his equal on the mound. From 2013 to '16, Sale compiled 21.7 WAR; Quintana clocked in at 18.1. Their success and shared work ethic helped the two became fast friends; they called each other “Nito”—short for “hermanito,” or “little brother” in Spanish.

Now Sale was gone, dealt to an American League rival for four prospects. “It was a hard moment, because he’s been one of my best friends in the game,” Quintana says. “But you quickly understand that it’s a business, and I think they were trying to take the path that made the most sense.”

The message of Sale’s trade (and that of veteran centerfielder Adam Eaton, who was shipped to the Nationals a day later) was unmistakable: It was open season on the White Sox’ roster, Quintana included. Hardly a day went by over the rest of the winter and during spring training without his name being speculated about in trade rumors online, and that will continue to be the case as the July 31 trade deadline draws closer.

But for as much as Quintana could bring back in a trade—he is young, durable and signed to a ludicrously team-friendly contract that will pay him a mere $27.8 million over the next four years—those same qualities could make it hard for the White Sox to part ways with him. Most of the prospects the team has acquired during the past few months are relatively close to the majors, and Chicago still has a number of enviable young core pieces—including shortstop Tim Anderson, starter Carlos Rodon and rightfielder Avisail Garcia—to build around. “It’s not hard for us to map out a path to where we are certainly in a position to win again during the length of that four years of control for José,” Hahn says.

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On the other hand, it’s hard to pass up cashing in the best trade chip in the game, especially one drawing as much interest as Quintana has. The Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees have all been linked to the lefty, and a number of other teams could conceivably jump into the fray as the season progresses. And while Quintana wouldn’t bring back the kind of haul that Sale did, he’s a lock to return at least a couple of top-100 prospects—another big boost to a suddenly stacked White Sox farm system.

“[Team owner] Jerry Reinsdorf put it best when he said that, between the Bulls and the White Sox, the only untouchable he ever had wore No. 23,” Hahn says. “If we’re overwhelmed by a package, we have to do with what’s right for the longterm health of the organization.”

For now, the White Sox are standing pat. “José is not a guy we are out eagerly looking to move,” Hahn says. Quintana says he wants to stay with the White Sox this season and beyond, and that the constant rumors don’t bother him: “We as players don’t have control over that. I focus more on my work.”

Wherever he ends up, Quintana isn’t done yet. “I didn’t dream I’d get this far, but I always dreamed of being in the big leagues,” he says. “I dreamed of going to an All-Star game, which I did last year, and to be among the best pitchers in baseball, and I’ve done that. And I want to keep achieving more things.”

The day before Quintana met Fallon, he got a chance to practice his English with the New York media, which crowded around his locker pregame to ask about—what else—trade rumors. As reporter after reporter peppered him with questions—Do you think the White Sox will trade you? Would you welcome a deal to New York? Does the trade talk bother you?—Quintana quietly and quickly answered each person in turn. The team’s translator, Billy Russo, stood by his side, ready if needed, but Quintana handled the barrage on his own. After several minutes, the reporters shuffled off to talk to other players, and Quintana turned to Russo to laugh about all the newfound attention. After years out of flying under the radar, all eyes were finally and firmly on him.