GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If a search was enacted for the 2012 Most Valuable Player among a White Sox team that stayed atop the American League Central for 117 days, more than a few candidates would leap to mind.
How about right fielder Alex Rios and his top single-season performance as a Major Leaguer? There's also Chris Sale and his breakout, 17-win Cy Young-caliber effort. And Jake Peavy can't be forgotten, with his steady and consistent work and leadership among the pitchers.
Reliever Matt Thornton has another, slightly more remote name he volunteered to the list in then-rookie starter Jose Quintana. And his value goes well beyond a final 6-6 record and solid 3.76 ERA.
"There is no doubt," said Thornton concerning Quintana being on the short list for last year's team MVP. "If he doesn't come in and do what he does, we were out of it long before then.
"Not only was he keeping us in games but saving the bullpen. Doing things out there, for a rookie to do, was outstanding."
Quintana, who turned 24 in January, replaced an injured John Danks in the rotation. But with Philip Humber struggling after his April 21 perfect game in Seattle and Gavin Floyd battling through a trip to the disabled list in July, the left-hander's summer effectiveness was essential to contention.
His ERA checked in at 1.76 in April, 2.38 for May and 3.67 across June. From June 6 to Aug. 19, he worked at least six innings in 11 of his 13 starts, reached eight innings on four occasions and turned in seven quality starts.
To Quintana's credit, last year doesn't matter in preparation for 2013. The late-season fade when Quintana's ERA rose from 2.76 on Aug. 19 to a final 3.76 in the matter of eight starts has drawn more of the southpaw's focus.
"I just wasn't used to pitching that far into the year," said Quintana through translator and White Sox coach Lino Diaz. "I always kept in mind that I want to help the team. We were in first place and it was a good environment and I wanted to be a part of it."
"Obviously, we all saw the wear and tear of what a Major League season will do to somebody who hasn't been there before and knows how to go through it," said Peavy of his rotation mate. "But Q just didn't come fill in. He came and filled in, in a big way."
So how did Quintana start the process to improve on his rookie showing? After surpassing his previous single-season innings high by 83 when adding up the 2012 work for the White Sox and Double-A Birmingham, his offseason focus fell upon durability through cardio and then a little bit of weights.
Pitching coach Don Cooper also explained how the coaching staff sits down with each pitcher at the end of each season and gives them a laundry list of what to focus on. For Quintana, who made a strong impression after taking quickly to the cutter when it was added last Spring Training, it was changeup, two-seam fastball and breaking ball all away to righties.
When Quintana tired at the end of 2012, it showed up less in velocity and more through a loss of command, as right-handed hitters posted a .284 average against.
"We were looking to add some more to the arsenal," Cooper said. "Down in the end, we were throwing so many pitches in to righties, we could open up a whole new world by two-seam away to righties, changeups away to righties, curveballs away to righties, all of those things. Then we have both sides of the plate."
As soon as Quintana began February workouts in Arizona, Cooper knew that his pupil's offseason homework was done.
"You say something and he remembers it," Cooper said. "He wants to be good at it. He's going to put the work in. That's what I know and like about him."
Improvements for Quintana, who will work in a White Sox Minor League game during Tuesday's scheduled off-day, have shown through his early Cactus League efforts. With the way the rotation shapes up, with Sale and Peavy at the top and a healthy Danks returning, Quintana doesn't have to worry about pitching like a team MVP candidate.
Instead, the free-agent addition of Nov. 10, 2011, following a productive season in the Yankees' system, can show he's more developed as a pitcher and has stepped beyond a one-hit wonder.
"With that experience and him being a year added on to that, if he can do once again a little of what he did last year, we're talking about a guy starting in the back end of your rotation that pitched like a front-end-of-the-rotation guy for a better part of his time with us," Peavy said. "He won some big games for us. He had some huge starts. He picked the team up and didn't pitch like a rookie by any means."
"Any time you see a guy going out there with [jersey] No. 62 on, it looks different. But for us, he's part of the plans," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "You don't look at him the same way as you did last year. You look at him as he's a little more mature than you think."