I suppose what I should say is that the Gerrit Cole trade has two perception problems. One, it’s clearly just a bad look for Pittsburgh. It’s generally a bad look when a major-league team has to trade away an established major-league talent, and with Cole and then Andrew McCutchen going out the door, it’s a twin reminder of how the Pirates failed to build on a tremendous run of success. I don’t know how much more the Pirates reasonably could’ve done, but there’s forever that lingering question regarding ownership’s commitment to winning. This is nothing new. It’s a reopening of wounds that never healed.
There’s also, though, another aspect. The Pirates have been heavily criticized for the return package they got for Cole from the Astros. I have no interest in trying to figure out whether the Pirates got the best package possible. I don’t know what else was truly on the table. Maybe more would’ve been available in July; maybe Cole’s stock would’ve dropped. All we know is what the Pirates got. My read of the consensus is that the Pirates didn’t get enough. But my read is also that the Astros have a little something to do with that. Specifically because the Astros are unusually good and deep.
Back at the winter meetings, there was a conversation I didn’t expect to have as often as I did. It was a conversation that revolved around teams with bad farm systems. Every farm system gets ranked. Great farm systems get ranked. Awful farm systems get ranked. There are, in some places, rankings of all the farm systems together. But there are also regular farm-system rankings, rankings of the top 10 prospects or rankings of the top 25 or 30 prospects within a given organization. These lists are available all over, and a recurring theme in conversation was that the best prospects in bad systems probably end up overrated. It’s not really their fault, and it would be a tough thing to control for. But in even the worst system imaginable, there’s still a best prospect, and a next-best prospect. The human mind is drawn to any number-one ranking. It can be hard to evaluate them within proper contexts.
The idea, more simply: The best Mariners prospects are probably overrated. The best Marlins prospects are probably overrated. They’re the best prospects from bad prospect pools, but we still can’t help but focus on names at the tops of lists. Does this make sense? It’s all speculative and unproven, but I see how it would work. And if you’re following along, I’d like to now suggest something similar, or opposite.
From the Astros’ side, the Cole trade has been widely embraced. And why wouldn’t it be? Cole isn’t as good as he’s looked before, but he’s fairly young and highly talented, and he’s an impact addition to a club that will be trying to defend a championship. Everyone loves landing an All-Star player, but even beyond that, the return package doesn’t hurt. I’m sure you’ve read this reasoning in a number of places. The Astros got Gerrit Cole, and they did so without losing a top prospect, and without losing anything of significant value from the major-league roster. Isn’t that always the dream? It’s typically the impossible dream. It’s something Astros fans get to celebrate, and it’s something Pirates fans can’t ignore.
From a certain perspective, the Pirates dealt their ace to the Astros, and they couldn’t get anyone important. You always want to be able to land someone important. A headliner. Given how we usually think of trades, if something looks good for one side, it can’t look so good for the other. I just find that this is an unusual situation. To put it as clearly as I can, I think the return package looks worse than it is because the Astros have too many good players. Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Jason Martin — they’re all valuable, they’re all potentially useful big-leaguers, but they didn’t mean much to the Astros, because the Astros are too stocked.
Musgrove was likely to pitch out of the Astros bullpen. He already started doing that in 2017. He would’ve been a regular Astros reliever in 2018, too, but he wouldn’t have been the closer, nor would he have been the primary setup man. For sure, when Musgrove started in 2017, he wasn’t great, but this is mostly the result of circumstances. The Astros’ rotation is so good and deep that, right now, even Brad Peacock seems ticketed for relief. There are just too many starters. Musgrove wasn’t likely to get an extended shot.
Feliz was likely to pitch out of the Astros bullpen. He’s more of a true reliever than Musgrove is, but Feliz was going to be somewhere low on the depth chart. Might not have made the team out of camp. Too much talent. As for Moran, he wasn’t about to replace Alex Bregman at third base. He also wasn’t about to replace Yuli Gurriel at first base. Similar to Musgrove, Moran was blocked, waiting for some kind of injury or under-performance. And finally, Martin has consistently hit in the minors, and he’s only 22, but he’s not Kyle Tucker, and he’s not Forrest Whitley. He’s not Derek Fisher. Martin hasn’t been on a whole lot of radars, because there have been too many other players to follow.
In context, the Astros were able to acquire Gerrit Cole without meaningfully hurting themselves. Yet that’s only the Astros’ context. Now the Pirates have four new players, and they’re going to be in different situations. If you just concentrate on the four players as they are, and forget about where they were in Houston, you can see how Pittsburgh would’ve emerged from this pretty satisfied.
Forget, even, how Cole hasn’t pitched like he did in 2015. I’m not even worried about that right now. Let’s start with Musgrove first. Musgrove is 25, with five years of team control. Last year, he showed he’s already a quality big-league reliever. But he should probably get another chance to start. Musgrove was dominant in Double-A and Triple-A. In limited major-league time as a starter, he has a bad 129 ERA-, but that comes with a 100 xFIP-, and you know which one of those is more reliable. According to Steamer, Musgrove projects as something like Michael Fulmer. It’s far too soon to write him off as a starting option, given the high-minors track record, and given Musgrove’s ability to throw consistent strikes. It’s hardly out of the question that Musgrove is a roughly average starter today. Could be more than that. He’s a Pirate for a while.
Moving on to Feliz, his projection is almost identical to that of, say, Raisel Iglesias. Feliz is 24, with four years of team control. While his big-league ERA- is a lousy 125, his xFIP- is a promising 74, and, again, you know which one of those is more likely to hold up. As a reliever lately, Feliz has generated strikeouts and walks at rates similar to Brad Hand. The velocity is real, and against the best competition around, Feliz has never struggled to miss bats. He doesn’t even have much of a platoon split. Feliz has yet to consistently avoid major damage in the majors, but the indicators are all encouraging. Feliz ought to step in as a weapon.
Moran? I wrote about Moran yesterday. He’s 25, with six years of team control. He’s to be considered something of a post-hype prospect, but before getting hurt in 2017, Moran’s profile improved greatly after he folded in a swing change, designed to hit more balls in the air. It’s a change that’s been attempted by dozens, if not hundreds of hitters, and while it doesn’t always work, Moran showed what was by far his career-best power. It’s perfectly sensible to question how much it might keep up, but as an average defensive third baseman, Moran should be a big-leaguer for the bulk of the season ahead. He can play right away, and the swing change gives him legitimate upside.
Martin is a lot further away. He’s 22, and he’s likely to go to Double-A. I don’t think of Martin the way I think of Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran. He might never reach the majors. But he’s been a successful minor-league hitter at each stop, and he’s another guy who’s worked to hit a lot more balls in the air after debuting as a professional as more of a ground-ball hitter. Martin could help in the majors in 2019. As a fourth piece goes, he could have a real future.
It’s undeniably true that the Astros are simply too loaded to try to make the most of these four players. Maybe not so much Martin, but in some way or another, Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran were going to be blocked in 2018. That made them easier to part with. But the Astros’ context should mean nothing, as far as the Pirates are concerned. It doesn’t matter to the Pirates that these players weren’t among the Astros’ headliners. It doesn’t matter to the Pirates that Colin Moran isn’t Alex Bregman. Here’s what matters to the Pirates: They lost two years of a good starting pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine starting pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine relief pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine third baseman. And they brought in a guy who could be a fine future corner outfielder. Three of the players are ready to help right away, and they’re not blocked by nearly as much talent. In Pittsburgh, they’ll get their opportunities. Whether they flourish, I couldn’t tell you, but they deserve the chance. Just because these players were expendable for Houston doesn’t make them any less valuable to another, less-fortunate club.
Again, I don’t know if Neal Huntington did as well as possible. I don’t and can’t know that. I do know that I like this trade more and more for Pittsburgh, the more that I look at it. You can argue whether they should’ve focused on players who are even younger, maybe players with higher ceilings. Ceilings, though, are subjective, and mostly unknowable. The Pirates exchanged one big-leaguer for three. I don’t think it’s the step back it’s been interpreted as. That’s just mostly the fault of how good the Astros are.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.