The Mets retained just two fifths of their rotation this winter, with only Max Scherzer and Carlos Carrasco returning. Of the other three spots, the Mets signed an all-time great in Justin Verlander, a player fresh from the NPB in Kodai Senga, and a solid back of the rotation pitcher in José Quintana. Verlander, though objectively old*, is about as sure a thing as exists in baseball. Senga is a question mark, as it is never quite a guarantee as to how Japanese pitchers adapt to American baseball. Quintana falls somewhere in between the two; a veteran with some recent success, but a career that is also dotted with struggles.
If judging by most recent history, Quintana’s two-year, $26 million contract looks like a very fair deal, perhaps even a steal. Between the Pirates and the Cardinals, Quintana was worth 3.4 bWAR in 2022, bolstered by a career low 2.93 ERA across 165 and two-thirds innings. As our Lukas Vlahos pointed out after the signing, this success appears to be the result of an adjustment in his fastball, with Quintana throwing the ball more up in the zone. Without great velocity or movement, his ability to locate the ball effectively near the letters allowed the pitch to not just be good, but be statistically the seventh best four-seamer in baseball.
The difficulty in this signing lies in the time before 2022, specifically in 2021. Between the Angels and the Giants, Quintana started just ten games, and only reached the sixth inning in one of them. After moving to the bullpen, his struggles continued, and it looked like Quintana and his 69 ERA+ might be cooked.
But do you judge an 11-year veteran on his best season or his worst? Neither is the correct answer and, if we can remove the 2021 and 2022 seasons from this conversation, Quintana looks a lot more like the back of the rotation starter the Mets signed him to be.
After his breakout 2016 season, removing the shortened 2020 season and the ghastly 2021, Quintana has consistently tossed 170+ innings and has never seen an ERA over five. His FIP has consistently underperformed his ERA, which means that his actual stuff has been better than the results. While not a prodigious strikeout machine, his career K/BB ratio of 3.04 is about league average.
The Mets are paying Quintana to be a reliable, back of the rotation starter. In 2023, that looks like an ERA somewhere in the 4s, with at least 150 innings thrown. Quintana can do that; Quintana has done that consistently. If his adjustments in 2022 were for real, the Mets are potentially getting a mid-rotation starter for a bargain.
For context, while older than both players, Quintana’s $13 million per season is $5 million less than Taijuan Walker (2.6 bWAR in 2022) and $2 million less than Jameson Taillon (1.2 bWAR in 2022) will be making this year, and both players are set to make $18 million for the three seasons after that. A more familiar and appropriate comparison is Chris Bassitt, only a month younger than Quintana, who put up 3.2 bWAR last season, and is making $19, $22, and $22 over the next three years. While I’d still gamble on Bassitt’s career consistency over Quintana’s more up and down past, the players are not dissimilar, and a two-year deal for a 34 year old at almost half the total cost of a three-year deal for a soon to be 34 year old seems like a smarter play.
If Quintana regresses to the mean, he’s still a perfectly suitable back-end starter. If he is closer to his 2021 season than his career norms, the two-year contract is not an albatross, if Steve Cohen’s Mets can even have albatross contracts. If he continues his 2022 effectiveness, he could be one of the steals of the off-season.
*younger than this writer