First Pitch: Is Gerrit Cole the Most Important Player For the Pirates Going Forward?

Gerrit Cole will make his debut today. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole will make his debut today. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.


**Prospect Watch: Kingham Makes Final Start For Bradenton; D’Arnaud Homers.

**Nick Kingham Promoted to Altoona.

**Prospect Notebook: Tyler Glasnow, a Playoff Race, Allie and Close Game Woes.

**Top Performers: Power Surge For Willy Garcia; Mel Rojas Continues Hot Streak.

**Top Performers: Gerrit Cole Finishes Strong Before His Promotion.

**Draft Signings: Danny Collins, Beau Wallace, Jeff Roy, and More.


**Do the Pirates Need to Trade For Pitching?

**Pirates Playoff Odds: Downturn After Losing Road Trip.

**What Should We Expect From Gerrit Cole?

**John McDonald Traded to the Indians.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: What I will be watching is the attendance tonight. As far as what I expect from Cole – a well pitched game. Whether it is Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Brandon Cumpton, or Jeanmar Gomez, we need someone who will help us keep the game under control until our hitters decide to give the pitching some runs to work with. How long has it been since the hitters went out and scored early and took control of the game? I think that Cole has learned a lot and will do well.

  • Lee Young

    Tim…I agree with you that pitching wins games. Look at the Giants, and the Dodgers of the 60s.


  • joe g.

    Another great article with some great perspective on the importance of an ace versus great offensive players. Hopefully over time, Cole will become the next Drabek or better.

  • wkkortas

    I don’t know if it’s Cole as much as Cole, Taillon, Heredia et al; the Pirates have taken some criticism–though it’s tough to say how much of that is really justified, TISTAAPP and all that–for their track record with young pitching, and the Pirates will always, always, always have to live and die on draft and development, so it’s important that the current crop of young pitchers ends up bearing some fruit.

    • leadoff

      Not necessarily true, the Pirates have one of the best starting staffs in baseball and only have one starter from their farm system and even he was not drafted by the Pirates. Scouting is the key, both for farm players and major league players.

  • wkkortas

    That’s true to an extent–but the Pirates will never be able to pick up a true number one ace-of-the-staff guy on the open market; if they have that kind of guy, he’s going to have to come from the system.

  • leadoff

    Tim, my money says you have Locke figured out wrong, he actually could get better instead of regressing, he is a control pitcher and he has not matured yet and his control is not as good as it can get. Obviously he will tire some as the season goes on, he never pitched an entire season in the majors and there may be some regression in numbers, but that will be natural regression, in other words, he might get hit around one game and drive his numbers up in the wrong direction, but pitch a few other good games after that. IMO, what you are seeing is what he is capable of.
    Soon after the trade was made to bring Locke to the Pirates I talked to someone about the trade and he said that Locke was the big prize for the Pirates in that trade, at the time most felt it was Morton.
    If he were pitching for Atlanta or St.Louis now, they would be raving about the talent those two systems bring up and he would be looked at much differently.

    • smurph

      Kind of agree with leadoff. You never know for sure, but Locke seems to have the grit and the brains to be a very good starter. Sometimes it is more than just “stuff” or a 98 MPH fastball. The standard reference is Greg Maddox who will be in the HOF.

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