MLB Hot Stove: Gerrit Cole Drama Ends with Deal to Astros

Well, this was rather anti-climatic.

The Pirates traded Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros this evening for four players, in a move where it appears the Pirates selected quantity over high quality.

Cole’s career has been the tale of two different pitchers.  From 2013-2015, he compiled 73 starts, going 40-20 with a 3.07 ERA (2.89 FIP; 121 ERA+) in 463.1 innings.    He allowed only 0.6 HR per nine innings and had a rather impressive 3.93 K/BB ratio.   After his strong 2015 season, Cole was only 24 years old, and seemed to be poised to become a perennial Cy Young Award contender.   The Pirates were an exciting franchise, seemingly poised to be a playoff contender for many years to come.

As we always say, pitching will often break your heart.  Injuries have impacted Cole, but you can’t just point to injuries as the reason for his downturn.   While he was pretty good in his injury-plagued 2016 campaign, his 2017 season was mediocre, as his ERA spiked to 4.26 (4.08 FIP), while his home run rate jumped to 1.4 per nine innings.     He still struck out batters at a solid clip (8.69/9), which means he likely hasn’t lost stuff.  He threw the ball as hard as ever (even a bit harder), so if you are the Astros, you make this deal hoping that his HR rate will normalize.  Coming over to the American League and pitching in a park that is more friendly to home runs won’t help, but it is all relative.  He doesn’t need to put up the extremely low home run rates he was putting up earlier in his career.  He just needs to bring them down to average levels.

The big difference between Cole 2017 vs. Cole before 2017 was his fastball usage.    For the first time since his 2013 rookie campaign, Cole threw his four-seam fastball less than 50% of the time (41.9%).   He essentially started throwing less fastballs and more change-ups  in what appears to be a change in philosophy.  It will be interesting to see if the Astros try to push him back towards what he did prior to 2017, or if they will simply try to work with the new approach.   Using Fangraphs’ pitch values, the fastball and change-up were not the main culprits for his fall from grace.  His curveball/slider combination both recorded negative values for the first time in his career (he had seasons where one or the other recorded a negative value, but never both).

Cole is a very talented pitcher, but still only has that 2015 breakthrough as proof of that talent.  He has been very good in other seasons, but has fallen below ace status.   The Astros don’t need him to be an ace in 2018, given their strong array of starting pitchers.   However, you don’t make a trade for Cole in January with the thought that his 2017 season would be good enough going forward.  The Astros are hoping Cole turns the corner to become a top-of-the-rotation starter over the next two seasons leading into his free agency.

In return, the Pirates accepted four players, though none of them move the dial much for me.   The prize of the bunch is 25-year old pitcher Joe Musgrove, who once ranked as the #83 prospect in baseball (by Baseball America) before the 2016 season.  His MLB career to date has been rather uninspiring, given his 4.52 ERA (87 ERA+) in 171.1 innings.    He was a part of a huge package of seven players the Blue Jays sent to the Astros in July 2012 (the trade that netted the Blue Jays J.A. Happ).    I would assume the Pirates are going to try him out in the rotation, hoping he can tap into some of his potential.   Musgrove dealt with injuries early in his professional career, so he his minor league experience was rather limited when the Astros called him up.   Can he now breakout into a dependable middle-of-the-rotation starter?  Anything is possible, but the results thus far are underwhelming.

Left-handed hitting third baseman Colin Moran was also included in the deal.  If you haven’t noticed, the Astros have a rather strong young third baseman,  which would have limited Moran’s playing time.    Moran isn’t a big prospect to begin with, so including him in a deal like this is a no-brainer for the Astros.  He has limited big league experience (37 plate appearances) and was bad in Triple-A back in 2016, when he hit .259/.329/.368 while playing in the Pacific Coast League.  That is…shall we say…ugly.   Just like Musgrove, Moran wasn’t originally a member of the Astros’ organization.  He was traded there from the Marlins in 2014.   I am often skeptical of prospects who get passed around like mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.    He didn’t hit well in the PCL, is supposedly a poor third baseman, and has little foot speed, which will limit the Pirates’ ability to try him out in a super-utility role.   Yuck.

24-year old relief pitcher Michael Feliz will now tow the rubber in Pittsburgh.   Feliz is a strikeout machine, as evidenced by his 172 career strikeouts in 121 innings.   While his walk rate isn’t spectacular (48 in those 121 innings), it is acceptable for a pitcher with his extreme ability to strike hitters out.   However, Feliz has also allowed a whopping 20 home runs and has a career 5.13 ERA.   For a pitcher with his ability to generate strikeouts, he has been rather easy to otherwise hit.   His slider grades out below-average, which leaves him as basically a hard fastball pitcher who can occasionally snap off a strong slider to generate a high K rate.  At 24, is it possible he can refine the slider, or develop a different off-speed pitch, to become a useful late-inning reliever?  Maybe.  The Astros didn’t have a need to find out.

The lone player without MLB experience acquired in this deal was outfielder Jason Martin.  The 22-year old power threat made it to Double-A in 2017, where he hit .273/.319/.483 in 79 games.   He has hit 41 home runs in 235 games over the past two seasons, and has some speed on top of that (though his stolen base percentages are far from ideal).   He has never been ranked on a Top 100 prospects list, and ranked #13 on John Sickels’ list of Top 20 prospects in the Astros system.  Sickels profiles him as a 4th outfielder with the athletic ability to play all three positions.   A kid like Martin is the perfect “lottery ticket” type of prospect that a team like the Pirates should ask for as a deal sweetener.    If only the rest of the deal was sweet.

Bottom Line:   It isn’t that the Pirates failed to add talent in this trade.  Musgrove has the ability to be a workhorse starter, though it is entirely possible he ends up in the bullpen full-time.  Some (like Sickels) still believe somewhat in Moran’s bat, but it is not the bat that the Marlins thought they were getting when they drafted him.   Many relievers like Feliz turn around their careers with a tweak here and a tweak there, but all we know for now are the mixed bag (mostly negative) results.   Martin?  Who knows?  You don’t make a deal like this because of a player like Jason Martin.

The Astros’ minor league system is still above average, and the Pirates were unable to pluck any of their best prospects out of this deal.  Instead, they went for a quantity of young players, hoping a few of them turn out to be useful MLB players.  Eh.

As for the Astros side of this trade, it is a deal they should make, given their current position in MLB as the defending champions.  Cole may never become an ace, but the talent is there for him to be very good.   We also should not overlook the World Series fatigue side of this deal.   In recent years, teams that have made it to the World Series have slogged along a bit in the year after making it there (2015 Royals being one exception).   Cole should help ease the pain if any of the Astros’ pitchers come out sluggish to begin the 2018 campaign.

A big win for the Astros here, as none of the players they gave up figured to be a part of their long-term plans.  What is not to like about that?

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