When Gerrit Cole makes his major league debut today, it will be the first time the Pirates have graduated their top prospect to the majors since 2010 with Pedro Alvarez. Since then the system has been led by Jameson Taillon (2011) and Cole (2012, 2013). We’ve seen other prospects come up between then and now, but promoting the top prospect in the system is a bit different.
Cole is also a bit different than when the Pirates promoted Alvarez or Andrew McCutchen. We’ve seen this year the value of pitching. The Pirates are winning this year largely because of how great their pitching staff has been. They’ve had a few good guys on offense at times, but the pitching has been solid all around. This isn’t new. Last year the offense was pretty much Andrew McCutchen all year, and they were competing most of the year due to their pitching.
Gerrit Cole has the potential to be an ace. In last week’s draft podcast, Jim Callis said he’s got the upside to be the best pitcher in the game. Even if that doesn’t happen, I think most Pirates fans would settle for “normal number one starter”. That’s something that hasn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since Doug Drabek.
We’ve seen how important pitching is over the last 2-3 years. A lot of the problems the last two years were that the Pirates’ rotation was performing above their heads. A lot of starters looked like they were heading for a regression, and in a lot of cases, that regression happened in the second half. This year has been different. Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett are performing in line with their FIP numbers. Wandy Rodriguez is about half a run lower than his xFIP. Jeff Locke has been due for a regression, although he’s also increasing his strikeouts recently, and if he keeps that up he won’t fall as far.
The problem is that next year the Pirates could lose one or both of Burnett and Rodriguez. After next year Liriano will no longer be under control. Locke could be a good starter, but won’t be a top of the rotation guy. So the Pirates need Cole to step up and lead the rotation. They’ll have other guys too. Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham could both be up next season. Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin are both injured this year, but both could be options in future years. But none of those guys could lead the rotation like Cole could.
With the way Burnett and Liriano have been pitching this year, plus Locke playing over his head and Rodriguez pitching well when healthy, the Pirates don’t need Cole to step up this year. If Liriano repeats this next year, and one of Burnett or Rodriguez return, they won’t need Cole as the leader in 2014 either. But in 2015 they will need Cole to step up and lead the rotation. At that time guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, and prospects like Gregory Polanco and Tony Sanchez will be important. But the most important player will be Cole. Pitching wins games, and Cole is the type of guy who can anchor a rotation in the future. He’s the type of guy who can put up dominant numbers, and you don’t have to worry if there’s a regression to come. And he’s the type of guy who can do that year after year, every five games, through the 2019 season.
I would argue that Andrew McCutchen is extremely important, and probably the most important offensive player. But the Pirates have had good offensive players over the last 20 years. Just look at Jason Bay, who put up back-to-back 5+ WAR seasons in 2005-06. The Pirates haven’t had a pitcher like Cole, or pitchers anywhere near him in those 20 years. I don’t think that’s a coincidence that the Pirates have lost during all of that time, and lost 95 games each year when Bay was putting up those performances. Just look at the last few seasons to see how important pitching is, even when you only have one guy performing on offense. Cole will have the luxury of a much better offense going forward, but because pitching is so important, and because he’s expected to lead the pitching staff, he will be the most important player for their future.
Links and Notes
**Save $8 On The Pirates Prospects Books With the MLB Draft Sale. The sale only runs for one more week, so act quickly!
**With Gerrit Cole making his debut, check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast from last week, which includes a discussion on Cole.