The debate between Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer is probably going to be a debate that will exist for most of their careers. Both pitchers were drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft out of UCLA. Cole was rated as the better prospect on the draft boards heading in to the year. Bauer gained recognition by the end of the year, and even passed Cole in some rankings. Bauer had better numbers than Cole in their junior year at UCLA, while Cole arguably has more upside and better tools.
Bauer got a head start last year after signing on July 25th with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The right hander signed a major league deal for four years and $4.45 M, which could pay up to $6.95 M, depending on when he reaches the majors. He was able to pitch 25.2 innings between high-A and AA, and because of that he could have a shot at his major league debut in 2012.
Cole signed just prior to the deadline in August, and wasn’t able to make his pro debut in 2011. He pitched during the Fall Instructional Leagues, and was sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time. The Pirates also gave him an invite to Major League Spring Training in part to give him extra time to work, but also to give him the experience of being in big league camp.
“We wanted to get him the experience of Major League Spring Training, so that hopefully the next time he comes in to compete to make the club, it’s not new,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said. “And he’s been through it once before, he’s been through the longer Spring than you get as a minor league Spring Training guy.”
When Major League Baseball changed their Collective Bargaining Agreement over the off-season, one of the good changes they made was moving the draft signing deadline up a month. The deadline previously sat in mid-August, which was a little over two months after the draft, and two months after the college season ended. For players who signed at the deadline, that kind of layoff prevented any chance to get significant pro experience before the end of the minor league season.
The Pirates are still seeing the effects of the old system with Cole.
“This is the downfall of the old system,” Huntington said. “Had he signed June 15th, who knows where he could be right now? But he didn’t, and we’ve got to rebuild from that downtime.”
You could make the argument that Cole could have arrived in the majors during the 2012 season had he signed early. Signing early isn’t really a common move for Scott Boras clients, who usually wait until right before the deadline. Now that the deadline has been moved up, it should allow players in similar situations to get some professional experience after holding out until the deadline.
A big thing for Cole will be getting used to the professional lifestyle. In college he pitched once a week, every Friday night. In the pros he will need to get used to pitching every five days. There are also some minor things Cole will to focus on, although there’s a reason he was drafted first overall, and it’s not because he’s got a lot of work to do.
“There’s not an overhaul,” Huntington said on Cole. “There’s not a major project here. It’s refinement. Part of it is controlling the emotions, part of it is controlling the mechanics, part of it is just repeating some things that he does naturally well, but maybe just doesn’t repeat them as well as he’s going to need to, to be successful at the A-ball level, at the AAA-level, and certainly at the major league level.”
Cole will need to work on his fastball command, although he won’t be in the same situation as first year prep pitchers in State College and West Virginia who throw almost 90 percent fastballs. Cole will need to focus on pitching off of his fastball in order to make his exceptional secondary pitches even more effective. Cole currently throws a four seam fastball, a two seam fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curveball that is more of a slurve.
The Pirates will also have him working on pitching inside, although that won’t be an issue for Cole.
“That’s what they like us to do, and that’s what I like to do too,” Cole said about pitching inside, on the same day that he hit Jake Fox in the back with an inside curveball during live batting practice.
One thing for Cole will be keeping the ball down. He has a tendency to put too much energy in to his pitches, which leads to over-powering his fastball. That leads to his fastball getting elevated, which is what led to his higher numbers at UCLA during his junior year.
The Pirates will start Cole off in Bradenton. That seems low for someone with his skill set. He could probably enter Altoona to start the year and fare well at the level. The Pirates are focused more on how he does once he reaches the majors.
“Our decisions aren’t going to be based on results on how he does down here,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said about when Cole could move to Altoona. “It will be the overall long term benefit. When we move a guy it’s going to be based on the long term benefit, rather than ‘he’s good to go to Altoona now, let’s put him there.’”
While he’s down in Bradenton, Cole will be pitching in a very talented rotation. He will join fellow top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon, and those two could be joined by guys like Colton Cain, Zack Von Rosenberg, Zack Dodson, and others from the 2011 West Virginia pitching staff. Cole has already become friends with Taillon, although the two haven’t had a chance to work with each other this Spring, with Cole in major league camp and Taillon in minor league camp. Cole said he looks forward to eventually working with Taillon again later in the Spring.
The dream scenario for Pirates fans would be Cole and Taillon moving up through the system together, and reaching the majors at the same time. The Pirates won’t move them as a group, but only when the individuals are ready.
“They’ll move when they show us they’re ready to move,” Huntington said. “Some are going to move quicker than others. Some are going to have to stay at levels, and then they make a quick jump. Some are going to progress logically and linear through the system, others are going to have ups and downs.”
“We wish development was linear. It would be a lot easier if it was Point-A to Point-B and a straight line in-between, but all too often there’s peaks and valleys in there, and it’s just a matter of trying to keep the peaks as high as you can, and the valleys as close to the middle as you can.”
The late signing probably killed any shot of Cole arriving in the majors during the 2012 season. It will also keep him in high-A to start the year, while former teammate Bauer will start off at a higher level. But Cole’s attitude and work ethic can help counter the negative effects of signing late.
“He wants to learn, Larry Broadway said. “He doesn’t have an ego, and he wants to learn, he wants to get better, he wants to do the right thing. So it’s just a matter of him getting the experience, getting his feet under him in the professional environment. He has an unlimited ceiling, so it’s exciting.”
For now Cole is enjoying his time in Major League camp, taking in the routines of the upper level pitchers, and getting a feel for pitching against the upper level hitters.
“It’s pretty cool,” Cole said about Major League camp. “I’m having a lot of fun.”