There’s one thing you notice when you cover prospects closely: there’s no middle ground with expectations and reactions. At times it seems like there are pretty much only two reactions to a prospect. If there is a good report, or a player is performing well, there are calls for a promotion. If the player has a flaw, or is going through some struggles, the reaction is doom and gloom. I don’t pay attention closely enough to know that it’s always the same people with these reactions. I do know that I’ve had several instances where I’ve been asked why a player (who isn’t ready for a promotion) isn’t getting promoted. When I point out the flaws that player has, the reaction takes a 180 turn, and suddenly the player isn’t going to be a star hitter or the ace pitcher he was projected to be.
In general, I find that people sometimes forget that the minors exist for a reason.
We talk so much about the upside of players that it becomes easy to forget that we’re talking about what players could become, and not what they are now. Take Gerrit Cole, for example. Cole has the upside of a number one starter. That doesn’t mean Cole is a number one starter right now. He probably won’t be a number one starter when he’s called up to the majors later this year. But at some point, when he’s fully developed, he could become a number one starter.
That development is crucial for him to reach his ceiling. That’s why it’s alarming that so many people would suggest that he skip over Triple-A and go right to the majors. Ask yourself, why?
Is it because Cole had good numbers last year in high-A and Double-A? Is it because he had one decent start in Triple-A, with one horrible start left off the stat lines because it came in the playoffs? Is it because he had a 3.60 ERA in a mere 10 innings in major league camp this Spring? Or is it because the focus is on his upside of a number one starter, and when you combine that with the impatience that comes from 20 years of losing, and the uncertainty that comes from this pitching staff, you start to think “let’s see if he might be ready now”.
Here are some facts about Cole. In his second start with Indianapolis he gave up eight earned runs in two innings. In his two starts this season he has combined for a 6.00 ERA in six innings. He left the first start after four innings due to reaching his single inning pitch limit in the fourth inning. He left tonight’s start after two innings and 63 pitches. So ask yourself another question. If Cole needs 30+ pitches to get through an inning against a Triple-A lineup at this point, then how is he going to be anything close to his upside in the majors right now?
The problem with prospects is that their perceived values are so volatile. The sky is the limit for a prospect until he starts to show a flaw. When that flaw comes up, the allure starts to wear off.
In Cole’s case, he’s not ready for the majors, and he has things to work on. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him for the long-term. He’s still a pretty strong bet to be a future ace. But he also has a trend where he struggles initially at a new level, only to figure things out and put it all together after a little more time at the level. Right now it looks like he’s in that adjustment period for Triple-A. He might have even been promoted to Triple-A a bit too early. He was struggling with his control in his final starts with Altoona last year before the promotion, and now he’s had back to back starts where he’s putting up long innings, rather than dominating opposing hitters and putting them away early in the count.
Before calling Cole up, the Pirates should wait until he gets through this adjustment period, starts fixing some of these issues, and starts putting up a few strong performances at the level. He will eventually live up to his potential. He’s just not there yet, which is totally fine. That’s the purpose of the minor leagues — to give prospects a place to improve their game, and help them reach their upsides. The Pirates would be foolish to rush Cole through this process.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5. Get them both to use throughout the 2013 season.