Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, the White Sox have already used nine different pitchers to start games in 2012. You can tell they're starting to run out of pitchers to plug rotation holes simply by looking at who is getting the starts: Zach Stewart, a maybe reliever/maybe starter just dealt to Boston in the Kevin Youkilis deal; Dylan Axelrod, a former 30th-round selection who has been stuck in the high minors since 2010; Eric Stults, who was put on waivers and is now a Padre. The most successful of the group has, amazingly, been the most unlikely of all of their replacement starters to succeed, and that's Jose Quintana.
Quintana is in his sixth year as a professional pitcher, and despite being just 23, is already in his third organization. He was never a piece traded around like Stewart, one who teams saw something in, or knew they could get something for. Instead, Quintana has simply been cut twice -- once by the Mets, once by the Yankees -- and the White Sox just happen to be the first to give him a shot in the majors.
The left-hander has rewarded them for their faith (and maybe a little bit of desperation) by starting six games and relieving in two others, all while posting a 1.25 ERA. He's obviously not that good -- no one is -- but thanks to a minuscule walk rate, his fielding-independent pitching (FIP) is just 2.97. With time, all of these figures will inflate a bit, but if he can continue to limit the free passes, the White Sox might have found something useful here that others missed.
Quintana was signed as an amateur free agent by the Mets in 2006 for $40,000. The then-17-year-old pitched in the Venezuelan Summer League, but not well, as he walked eight and struck out five while giving up seven runs in his five-plus innings of work. He didn't pitch in 2007, thanks to violating minor-league baseball's drug policy , and the Mets cut him loose before the year was out. (The White Sox investigated this issue before signing him, and the assumption is that was it was due to a banned nutritional supplement, rather than steroids.)
The Yankees would scoop him up for 2008, as he was still just 19 at this point, and to say he had thrown just a handful of innings is probably being generous. This time around, the Colombian-born Quintana pitched in the Dominican Summer League, and very well: over the course of 2008 and 2009, Quintana punched out 156 batters in 105 innings, while walking 61. Granted, he was old for the DSL -- you generally see 17-year-old's too young for stateside rookie leagues there -- but it was still promising.
New York was never aggressive with him, placing him in the GCL in 2010, his fourth-straight season in a rookie-level league. When he showed improvement in his control, striking out four times as many as he walked, the Yanks bumped him to Single-A Charleston. He threw just 15 innings, but was a mess once more: just seven whiffs per nine, nearly six walks per nine, and a 4.70 ERA.
After holding him back for so long, the Yankees took an aggressive tactic with the now 22-year-old Quintana, sticking him in High-A to start the 2011 season. He was surprisingly good, starting 12 games and relieving in another 18, while racking up 102 frames and a 2.91 ERA, on the strength of a pi-shaped K/BB.
That was the last season the Yankees had control of Quintana, though, and he left the team as a minor-league free agent. The White Sox signed him just a week after he was granted free agency, and assigned him to Double-A Birmingham. This promotion went as well as the last, with Quintana posting nearly identical peripherals in 48 innings.
Chicago called the 23-year-old -- who was now moving at an age-appropriate pace despite his earlier running in place -- up to the majors in early May, using the new powers invested in them by the collective bargaining agreement. This new rule added a 26th man to the roster in case of doubleheaders, without penalty of option use. Quintana didn't start, but he might as well have, as he faced 20 batters and threw 80 pitches, allowing just three baserunners in the process. The White Sox returned him to the minors following the game, as per the rules, but he was back up just a few weeks later.
Since May 25, he's been in the White Sox rotation, and even threw in an extra-inning relief appearance for good measure. Quintana has thrown eight innings in each of his last two starts, and hasn't allowed a run in that stretch. He also hasn't allowed a walk since June 6, when he sent Kelly Johnson to first in the second. That's 97-straight batters faced without issuing a walk -- a clean first inning tonight would give him an even 100, but he'll need to keep it going for at least one more start to get his walk rate under one per nine innings.
Quintana doesn't strike out a ton of batters, but he does have effective swing-and-miss stuff. His fastball, despite sitting under 90 miles per hour, has induced whiffs 12 percent of the time, or, twice as often as you'd expect. Except for his curve, none of his other offerings come close to being even average in this regard, though, hence the lack of punch outs overall. He has control of all of them now, though -- he's a long way from his Rookie League days -- and has the 2.2 walks per nine rate over the last two seasons to show for it.
He'll have to keep that control if he wants to succeed in the majors, as any Twins hurler could tell you. And Quintana is certainly no sure thing to keep his control as ridiculous as it currently is, especially once the league has seen more of this upstart, non-prospect from Double-A. But his first 40 innings in the majors are a reminder that, just like some top prospects don't always work out, the forgotten guys can occasionally surprise you if given the chance.