The Free Agent Starter Who Could Be Another Kenta Maeda
Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsFor Quintana, who’ll turn 32 next week, free agency came at precisely the wrong time. His 2020 was cut short not only by COVID-19’s impact on the entire league, but by a literal cut he suffered while doing dishes during the coronal interregnum. Before that, though, Quintana had made at least 31 starts and topped 170 innings pitched in each of his seven full seasons, and in the year before that, he’d made every start across a campaign split between Double A and the majors.
Starters this durable are in short supply during any offseason, but especially so this winter. Alas, Quintana has struggled over parts of the last three seasons, almost ever since the trade that took him from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side. He’s still been worth 3.2 WARP, according to Baseball Prospectus, in a total of 355 innings, but he has delivered that value too unsexily. The shine is off of him, and the market for his services has been slow to warm.
That could be good news for the Twins, because despite clear signs of aging and a lack of dazzling new-age pitch characteristics, Quintana still has the ability to be a solid second or third starter, even for a playoff-caliber team. There are elements of his game the Cubs did too little to encourage, and weaknesses they were unable to shore up, that ideally suit the strengths and emphasis points of Wes Johnson and the Minnesota pitching infrastructure.
Quintana has never had especially high spin rates. However, he’s shown good rising action on his fastball despite that, at least in the past. He gets around his curveball a bit, so it has sweeping action and doesn’t come out of exactly the same slot as his heat, but that gives the pitch a two-plane shape and allows him to command it both within and outside the strike zone.
As was the case when the Twins acquired Maeda last year, there are alterations they could make to Quintana’s pitch mix that could unlock better performance for him. He’s a two-fastball pitcher, with a good sinker, but doesn’t yet mix the two as effectively as he should. He doesn’t use his changeup at all against fellow lefties, or throw his curve as much as he could against righties.
Quintana has made some mechanical tweaks recently, but there are more that could help him become more consistent and dominant. Beginning late in 2019, he introduced a more forceful shift from hyperextension to flexion of his spine. It didn’t really produce the effect he wanted, but it’s the right starting point, should he come under Johnson’s tutelage. If any pitching coach in the league can be trusted to find the right adjustment to balance, posture, and timing in a delivery, it’s Johnson. For whatever reason, Quintana’s release point also dropped significantly in 2020, but that should be an easy problem to fix. Finally, small adjustments to the way he grips and positions the seams for each of his pitches could fix some of the problems he's had generating the movement that once made him a near-ace.
With those calibrations right and his pitch mix optimized, Quintana could be a four-pitch stud, not unlike Maeda and José Berríos. Heck, if the Twins are especially eager, they could help him revive the slider/cutter he threw during his best seasons with the White Sox. In that sense, he’s similar to Jake Odorizzi, who thrived after the team helped him change horizontal lanes better beginning in 2018.
In all likelihood, Quintana would cost close to $10 million on a one-year deal, but the Twins could (and should) try to negotiate a lower annual salary by offering multiple years. In doing so, if they did restore him to the pitcher he’s been in the past, the team would also capture the upside for 2022 and (perhaps) 2023. It’s a bit of a risk, but as with Maeda, the upside far outweighs the potential for a bust here, and his likely price tag would preserve flexibility as the team addresses other needs. Considering those other, looming costs, it’s worth choosing Quintana over Jake Odorizzi and other slightly higher-floor options.
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