The Pirates Should Move Gerrit Cole

Some teams have fairly clear decisions when it comes to adding or dismantling. The White Sox faced a pretty clear decision to tear down. The Orioles appear to be coming to grips with reality. The Marlins might as well tear it all down at this point. The Yankees were wise to begin adding at the deadline and continuing to add this offseason. The Cardinals look like a team that should add and are trying to do just that this winter.

The more challenging places are teams at a sort of crossroads, those teams that are in the middle of the pack. Those teams that might be able to compete in 2018 but might be better off planning for 2019. There are fewer of these teams as the sport appears to be becoming one more of Haves and Have Nots, but they are out there.

In the NL there are teams like the Pirates (81-81 projected record), Giants (80-82) and Mets (80-82), in which case you can make an argument that all three could buy, sell, or hold. The Giants seem interested in adding. The Mets seem to be more in a holding pattern … and the Pirates? The Pirates seem to be leaning toward selling, they are at least exploring the markets for Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

I argued earlier in the summer that the Pirates should be soft sellers, but then last month I wrote they ought to also keep McCutchen for his final year given what might be a modest return. (After all, Pittsburgh, McCutchen named his newborn son ‘Steel’). So while I’ve had some trouble deciding what exactly the Pirates ought to do, perhaps it’s time to commit more fully to selling.

The focus in this post is on Cole as he’s one of the more intriguing big-game chips available on the market on the pitching side along with Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer.

And he appears to be generating quite a bit of interest from teams … including the Yankees. The Yankees are being connected to every arm available in part given their resources and depth of farm system talent.

Cole has wanted to be a Yankee for some time and was drafted by the Yankees out of high school.

That’s Cole as an 11-year-old at Chase Field for a Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series game in 2001.

With Clint Frazier as an obvious trade chip, perhaps he and Justus Sheffield could provide the foundation for a package to acquire Cole, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick.

Cole might also make some sense for potential contending teams that are not going to afford top-end free agent arms like the Twins and Brewers, though the Twins might not have the right prospect package to offer and intra-division trades are rare.

While Cole hasn’t quite made it back to his 2015 level, he’s projected to be a four-win player this coming season, according to FanGraphs projections, and he’s expected to make $7 million in arbitration. He’s projected to be worth $30 million in surplus value this year and he is under control for 2019 before entering free agency. He’s never had a major elbow or shoulder injury.

The Pirates tried to bridge from their successful 2013-15 run to a new core in 2016 and beyond but it hasn’t worked in part due to misfortune like Starling Marte’s PED suspicion, Jung Ho Kang’s off-the-field problems and Jameson Taillon’s cancer diagnosis last season. The Pirates have experienced just how difficult it is to sustain success in a small market. There is little margin for error. Sometimes a step back is the smarter play even when there is a plausible pathway to the postseason. This is a game about probability, after all.

The Pirates have been unwilling to fully commit to a teardown — or build up — since 2016 and that experience is one that can instruct this decision with Cole and other assets.

For instance, had the Pirates considered trading McCutchen a year earlier his trade value would have been significantly higher than it was when they shopped him during last year’s winter meetings. Of course, while the Pirates expected some regression after their 98-win 2015 season, it would have been difficult to trade the face of the franchise after such a season. Still, it is instructive in that it reinforces the general idea that when in doubt it’s better to trade a player a year too early rather than too late. Trade value can change dramatically. McCutchen ranked 9th on Dave’s 2015 trade value list but fell off the list in 2016.

It makes sense for the Pirates to move Cole. The Pirates’ system could stand to add some higher-ceiling prospects.

And it makes sense for some team to be interested in buying Cole.

Cole has remaining upside and his floor is relatively high. He’s entering his Age 27 season. He’s not been an ace-level arm in two years, but he’s a quality starter who could be something more. I am relatively confident he’s going to improve and his career-worst 15.9% HR/FB rate (10.0% career rate) is due for a correction. His strikeout rate was up four points last year, and was trending up in the second half perhaps, in part, because he had the most diverse pitch mix of his career.

A club might think it can help him return to his 2015 form when he had career-best command of his slider. In 2015, he was one of the best five starters in the NL. Cole’s changeup made strides last year as it rated as an above-average pitch and he began to throw it more often, doubling the pitch’s usage rate from 5.4% in 2016 to 10.5% last season.

He’s one of the high-velocity arms, like Justin Verlander, who has maintained elite velocity and has not suffered a major injury.

It makes sense for the Pirates to trade Cole. And it then makes sense for the Pirates to move McCutchen, collect assets, and try to return to relevance in 2019. As noted when discussing the Machado/Orioles situation, the axiom of former Pirates GM Branch Rickey is quite useful: It’s better to make a trade a year too early than too late. And in the case of the Pirates, it applies.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Unlike Verlander, his fastball gets hit. A lot.

wRC+ 114 against 4 seamer & wRC+ 130 against sinker in 2017. Velocity is irrelevant.