Turn back the clock almost four months to February 18th, the start of the college baseball season. Gerrit Cole went up against the University of San Francisco, at home, to kick of the season for UCLA. Cole was dominant, pitching a complete game shutout, allowing four hits, one walk, and striking out 11. Best of all, he only needed 104 pitches to do all of that. If there is a Gerrit Cole bandwagon, that outing might have signaled the keys turning in the ignition.
Tonight, Cole went up against the University of San Francisco again, once again taking them on at home, in what will be his final outing before the Major League baseball draft on Monday. Cole ended up throwing 7.1 innings, allowing three runs on eleven hits, with one walk and 11 strikeouts. He needed 119 pitches, and left in the eighth after giving up a leadoff double, a sac bunt, and an RBI single to put UCLA down 3-0.
Maybe it’s only fitting that Cole got his season started against San Francisco, because you could make an argument that the bandwagon for him being the number one overall pick crashed tonight.
The reports from the game tonight said that Cole was only topping out around 96-97 MPH, which is down from last week’s reports that he was hitting 100 MPH. The reports also said that his fastball was straight and elevated, which explains the 11 hits, a season high for Cole. His secondary stuff was reported to be looking good, with his changeup was back to the good version we saw early in the year.
Keith Law held a chat the other day, and in it he was asked if Cole would become the Pirates’ top prospect over Jameson Taillon if he was drafted. Law’s response:
Cole > Taillon for me, which is no slight to Jameson.
I was asked if I agreed with that response. Despite the late season struggles, and tonight’s outing, I probably would place Cole ahead of Taillon as the top prospect in the system. However, I think Cole and Taillon ultimately have the same upside, and Cole is just further along than Taillon.
Cole got a lot of attention early this year, mostly because his changeup was looking great, and borderline as a plus pitch. He hasn’t been as effective recently, and the change has fallen off a bit, which do raise some concerns. There are some “ifs” with him, but I think it’s mostly a question of whether his changeup was for real, and I don’t think you can flash a plus changeup for most of the year and say it’s not legit. It was encouraging to hear that his changeup was looking good tonight, which only supports the theory that his change really is the real deal.
I’d agree that Cole is ahead of Taillon right now, especially if you consider his changeup a plus pitch. It’s basically a case where Cole is ahead of Taillon as far as development goes. They both have the same ceiling, but Taillon has some work to do to get to where Cole is at right now. He has work to do with his changeup, which is expected, since high schoolers who can throw 99 MPH don’t really need a changeup.
As for the fastball issues tonight, they’re very similar to what we heard about Taillon last year. Taillon didn’t exactly dominate the high school ranks, getting hit around at times due to an elevated fastball. I was big on taking Taillon last year, mostly because of the velocity and the polish. The tendency to put the ball up in the zone didn’t concern me. There are things you can teach. You can teach a pitcher to keep the ball down in the zone (and that’s exactly what the Pirates have been working on with Taillon this year). You can’t teach a pitcher how to throw in the upper 90s. That’s why I liked Taillon, and I’m not as concerned with Cole for the same reason.
I would say their ceilings are about the same, but Cole is farther along right now, which puts him slightly ahead of Taillon in my book. The fact that his changeup is looking like a borderline plus pitch at times this year also gives him an edge. Taillon has time to get there with his changeup, but if I had a choice, I’d take the pitcher who already has the pitch.
My biggest issue with Cole, and this is something I’ve talked about all year, is the workload. Cole has seen a heavy workload this season, including a few starts with 120+ pitches, and one outing with 132 pitches in seven innings. The thing is, the season isn’t over. UCLA is in the post-season now, where Cole will be relied on heavily. College coaches don’t get paid to develop players for the majors. They get paid to win. If Cole is throwing 122 pitches in mid-April, how many is he going to throw in a close game during the College World Series? If the Pirates draft Cole, they’re not getting him signed until the deadline, which means they will be stuck watching his fate controlled by coaches who are looking out for themselves, and not for Cole’s long term development.
Cole struggled tonight in what is his final start before the draft, but the struggles shouldn’t be an issue, since ultimately they’re fixable. He’s definitely a talented pitcher, and a guy who would jump to the top of the Pirates Prospects rankings if he were selected by the Pirates on Monday, which seems to be the current consensus. Whether you take him first overall on Monday really depends on how comfortable you are with the heavy workloads imposed upon college pitchers.