In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays had a surprising season, much like the Pittsburgh Pirates are having in 2012. The Rays went from worst to first, winning the highly competitive AL East in the process. Along the way they promoted top prospect David Price, who was taken with the first overall pick one year earlier. Fast forward to 2012 and the Pirates are in a similar situation. They didn’t go worst to first, but they’re surprisingly contenders. They also have a top pitching prospect taken with the first overall pick the year before. And that has led to questions on whether the Pirates will, or should, call up Gerrit Cole in September.
To look in to whether they should go that route, let’s compare Price in 2008 to Cole in 2012.
A big advantage Price had was that he was already on the 40-man roster. Calling him up was simple. Cole is not on the 40-man roster. The Pirates would have to clear a roster spot to add him and call him up. They currently have one spot open, but might need that space for someone like Chris Leroux, Jeff Clement, or Rick VandenHurk. They could still find another spot to clear if they wanted to add Cole, so this isn’t a huge issue.
Both pitchers missed time during their signing years. They both started in high-A. Price moved quicker through the system while putting up better numbers.
In high-A, Price had a 1.82 ERA in 34.2 innings over six starts, with a 9.6 K/9 and a 1.8 BB/9 ratio. Cole was in high-A for 13 starts, with a 2.55 ERA in 67 innings, along with a 9.3 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. In his first six starts in high-A, Cole had a 3.86 ERA in 28 innings, with a 10.8 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9 ratio. Price’s ERA was almost twice as good as Cole’s. Cole had more strikeouts, but Price had much better control. Cole would eventually settle down with his control and put up strong numbers. After his first four starts at the level he put up a 1.80 ERA in 50 innings over nine starts, with an 8.3 K/9 and a 2.7 BB/9 ratio.
Price went to Double-A and once again had success. In nine starts he put up a 1.89 ERA in 57 innings, with an 8.7 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9 ratio. Cole just made his ninth start in Double-A last night. So far he has a 3.43 ERA in 42 innings, with a 9.2 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9 ratio. Once again, Cole started slow. In his first six starts he combined for a 4.85 ERA in 26 innings, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9. In his last three starts he’s given up two earned runs in 16 innings, with a 17:6 K/BB ratio.
Cole would be making the jump from Double-A to the majors, while Price had some time in Triple-A, due to his quick ascent through the lower levels of the minors.
Because Price moved quicker than Cole, he was able to move up to Triple-A for four starts. The results there weren’t as dominant. He had a 4.50 ERA in 18 innings, with an 8.5 K/9 and a 4.5 BB/9 ratio.
Cole started his season in April. Price didn’t start his 2008 season until May 22nd. So when he was called up to the majors on September 12th, he had thrown 109.2 innings in the minors. Cole has thrown 109 innings so far this year. He will have 4-5 more starts between now and September, which could give him 25-30 more innings. By comparison, Price went on to throw 19.2 innings in September and then in the playoffs. So chances are Cole will have thrown more innings in the minors in 2012 than Price did in all of 2008. Cole could be pushing 140 innings by the time a September callup could come around, while Price finished the year with 129.1 innings total between the minors and majors.
You also have to consider the length of the season. In college, Cole pitched from the last week of February, to the first week of June. That’s a 3-4 month season, depending on whether his team makes the post season. In the pros he’s pitching a little over five months in the minors. Then you add an extra month in September, and a few more weeks if the Pirates make the playoffs (and can find a way to get him on the playoff roster, which would require an injury). Last year Cole threw a little over three months. As a September callup he’d be pitching a six month season. And in the pros he’d be throwing every five days over six months, compared to once a week over three months in college.
You could argue that Cole has better stuff than Price had. Price threw his fastball in the low 90s, topping out at 95. Cole throws his fastball in the upper 90s, hitting triple digits. Price threw a plus-plus slider that hit 87. Cole’s slider can hit 92, and is just as good. They both threw plus changeups. Cole also throws a curveball and a two-seam fastball, which is thrown just as hard as Price’s regular fastball.
Long Term Impact
The Rays called Price up for good in late May, 2009. Because of his time in September, he qualified as a Super Two player this year, giving him an extra year of arbitration. If the Pirates called up Cole for September, they’d have to keep him in the minors until mid-to-late May in 2013 in order to get an extra year of control. And they’d probably have to add a week to that to avoid making it look obvious. By comparison, if Cole immediately starts dominating Triple-A next year, they could call him up in mid-to-late April for the rotation. In either case, he’d eventually be a Super Two player.
It was a lot easier to promote Price as a September callup. He was on the 40-man roster, he had time in Triple-A, and his workload wasn’t that heavy.
It’s not a problem that Cole isn’t on the 40-man roster. The Pirates could clear someone like Oscar Tejeda to make room for Cole. His numbers don’t matter as much. He’s starting to pitch better in Double-A, but even without the recent success he has the stuff to pitch in the majors.
The main concern comes with the workload. It was easier for Price. When he was called up he had 109.2 innings, and had only been pitching since the last week of May. Cole has been pitching almost two months longer than Price did in 2008, and has reached Price’s innings total already. That’s a big increase. Cole only threw 107 innings last year. His career high in college was 123 innings. He’s already passed last year’s total, and by the time September rolls around he will have passed his career high. When you consider that a September callup will put him pitching for six months this year (after throwing for a little over three last year), the workload becomes even greater.
The only comparison between the two situations is that they were surprise teams who each took a college pitcher with the first overall pick a year before. But Price was in a much better position for a September callup. For Cole, it would add some long-term risk by extending his first professional season, and extending a workload that will already reach a career high in innings and length of season.
There’s not much of a need for Cole in the majors. The Pirates have a six man rotation now, and that doesn’t include Jeff Locke, Chris Leroux, or Justin Wilson. David Price made one start for the Rays in 2008. The Pirates wouldn’t need Cole to make a start.
In the bullpen, the Pirates are keeping Bryan Morris in Triple-A, even though he looks major league ready. They will also likely have Locke, Leroux, and Wilson pitching out of the bullpen, leaving less time for Cole. They’ll have Juan Cruz returning, and guys like Evan Meek and Daniel McCutchen will also take innings.
Cole might be one of the best arms the Pirates could bring up. But the impact he could bring would be minimal. There’s not a huge need for Cole to be in the majors. It’s more the appeal of having the top prospect in the system called up. But when you consider the lack of need, and combine the risk involved with Cole’s workload, it doesn’t make much sense to call him up.