Every team could use a pitcher like Jose Quintana and the Yankees are no exception. Though Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia have concerns of their own, the back end of the club’s rotation is a glaring weakness. Some combination of Luis Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and Adam Warren are currently slated to handle the other two spots in the rotation (plus any injury replacement time for the front three). There is upside in that group, but also recent problems with health and effectiveness. Quintana possesses none of those issues and would presumably steal 200 innings from those five young pitchers. So while it’s obvious that the Colombian southpaw would upgrade the Yankees’ rotation, what’s not clear is by precisely how much.
At the moment, Fangraphs’ Steamer Depth Charts projects the Yankees as an 83 win team, far behind the Red Sox’ 93 victory forecast. The Yankees won 84 last year and haven’t done much to change the roster this offseason, so the projection seems reasonable. Although some recent Red Sox clubs have fallen far short of expectations (see: 2012 and 2014), it's hard to envision such a letdown reoccurring. So the division can probably be counted out. Over the last three seasons, the American League’s Wild Card winners have won between 86 and 89 games, so the Yankees probably need to find another handful of wins to sneak into the playoffs in 2017. And even that might not be enough.
Conveniently, Quintana has been worth a handful of wins each year he’s been a full-time member of the White Sox rotation. FIP-based WAR has had Quintana at roughly 5 wins in each of the last three seasons and 3.5 the year before that. Runs Allowed-based WAR has Quintana at 4.0, 3.1, 4.8, and 5.8 from 2013 through 2016. And Quintana’s projection for this seaason? Approximately 4 wins according to both Steamer and ZiPS. Snag Quintana and the Yankees are right in the thick of the Wild Card hunt, right? Not so fast. It all depends on the outlook of the of the innings Quintana would take away from other pinstriped hurlers.
Above is a snapshot of how the Yankees’ rotation is estimated to perform this season according to Fangraphs' Depth Charts. This forecast uses the Steamer projections and adjusts for the website's staff estimate of playing time, which in turn helps determine the win-loss forecast I previously noted. This projection expects the Yankees to need 458 innings from Severino on down. Adding Quintana while ratably adjusting the innings from Severino, Green, et. al. would look like this:
That brings the rotation from 14.5 WAR to 16.3 WAR, which translates to roughly a two victory upswing. That’s…not quite enough to push the Yankees into certain playoff team territory. So does that mean the Yankees would be an 85 or 86 win club with Quintana, all else being equal? Not necessarily. There are a few caveats with the projections I’m using here.
Most notably, Steamer is the high system on the four guys expected to get the bulk of the remaining innings: Severino, Green, Mitchell, and Cessa. ZiPS, on the other hand, expects far less. A comparison (in which I prorate ZiPS innings projection to match Fangraphs' Depth Charts):
There’s a two-win difference between Steamer and ZiPS for Severino and the others. That means that, perhaps, Quintana could be up to a four win upgrade. Maybe more if he pitches as well as he did last year. However, if we follow ZiPS conservative approach for the young pitchers and hold all else equal, we'd have to assume the Yankees starting point win total projection (without Quintana) would be 80 or 81 instead of 83. That means that in the end, though a conservative approach makes Quintana more valuable in comparison, the Yankees would still be in the same ending win curve position with the six-foot-one lefty in hand.
Quintana would inch the Yankees closer to contention in 2017, but wouldn't make the squad a shoe-in. That said, he wouldn’t be an acquisition for only this year. He's controllable for three more seasons after 2017, thanks to a team-friendly deal he signed with the White Sox. Those additional years will be his age 29, 30, and 31 seasons, right in the prime of his career. Dan Szymborski kindly sent me Quintana's ZiPS projections for the remaining life of his contract:
13.5 WAR in four seasons is pretty darn good. The Yankees need that kind of help in the rotation during that time period because Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia could all leave via free agency after this season. This potential acquisition would be just as much about the future as would be for this coming season. But to add Quintana to the team through 2020, the Yankees would have to sacrifice some of its minor league crop.
What would the cost be? Not as much as his ex-teammate Chris Sale fetched, but undoubtedly a substantial package. The South Siders reportedly asked the Astros for RHP Joe Musgrove, OF Kyle Tucker, and RHP Francis Martes in talks for Quintana.
What would be a similar package from the Yankees standpoint? First, let's get a better understanding of the quality of those 'Stros players. Martes and Tucker are Houston's two best prospects per Baseball America. The former, 21 years-old, pitched well in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League in 2016. The latter, Tucker, was the fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft and raked his way up to High-A as a 19 year-old. Musgrove, 24, was the club’s sixth-best prospect entering last season per the same publication before exceeding rookie eligibility this year. At midseason, Baseball America ranked Martes 29th, Musgrove 32nd, and Tucker 35th in its league-wide top 100 prospects list. As another point of reference, Chris Mitchell provided me the KATOH forecasts for each player's controllable years:
For some background, KATOH is a stats-only forecast method while KATOH+ considers Baseball America's rankings (an attempt to blend scouting with stats). Additionally, the controllable years factor in the distance from the Majors. So a player who topped out in Triple-A has a six year projection, Double-A seven, High-A eight, so on and so forth.
My best guess for a Yankees equivalent would be Gleyber Torres (Kyle Tucker), Clint Frazier (Francis Martes), and Luis Severino (Joe Musgrove). The midseason Baseball America rank and KATOH/KATOH+ projections for those three:
While I think Torres and Severino make sense as equivalents, it's hard to find a match for Martes as the Yankees don't really have a pitcher quite like him. Martes is both highly touted by scouts and favored by advanced metrics. Though Frazier is a position player, his Baseball America ranking is at least similar to that of Martes, and both should start 2017 in Triple-A. Maybe Kaprielian would have worked here if he was healthy last year. If you're thinking that this is a ton for Quintana, you're not wrong. Chicago isn't going to get fleeced. Of course, some negotiating could probably whittle down the package, but this gets us an idea of a starting point.
By strictly comparing the long-term WAR totals from my hypothetical package against Quintana's four-year forecast, the Yankees come up short. That makes sense, it's a similar concept to the time value of money. Any excess value the prospects provide over Quintana in the long run is the interest the Yankees pay. Of course, that interest probably wouldn't be felt until after Quintana's contract is complete.
Killing two birds with one stone is the goal of a potential Quintana deal. It can (sort of) help the Yankees push toward contention immediately, though the roster doesn't have much room for error. Additionally, It helps the Yankees contend in 2018 and beyond, provided that other continuous improvements are made and the remaining prospects blossom.
In spite of Quintana's allure, I don't think the Yankees as currently constituted are talented enough to justify this potential acquisition for three of the organization's top young players. Perhaps the asking price comes down, but Quintana isn't quite the ace that the Yankees would need for it to make a significant immediate difference. I know the Yankees are starved for pitching help, but this is a team in transition that shouldn't divert from its path. Quintana is really good, but not the type of player that an organization should change its plans for. I say this at risk of being labeled a prospect hugger, but I'd much rather take a chance on Frazier or Torres becoming studs by the end of Quintana's deal.