At the start of every offseason, I like to write a small reminder/disclaimer about rumors. Most rumors, whether they are trade rumors or free agent rumors, follow the basic principle of a team or two teams expressing interest in a player or a trade. Those simple rumors, which are just reporting on the standard initial contact from teams, get taken to the extremes.
As far as the Pirates go, we got our first trade rumor yesterday, with the Twins talking to the Pirates about Gerrit Cole. The rumor is below, and provides a great example of why the disclaimer is needed.
#mntwins have talked with #Pirates about RHP Gerrit Cole and #Rays about RHP Jake Odorizzi. Both come with 2 years of control and shouldn't break the bank via arbitration process. 2018 projections are $7.5M and $6.5M, respectively.
— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) November 22, 2017
That rumor says that the Twins have talked with the Pirates about Cole. It doesn’t say that the Pirates are trading Cole. It doesn’t say that the Twins made an offer for Cole. It doesn’t say that the Twins would even be interested in trading for Cole after asking about him.
That small amount of basic information is enough to start all of the above discussions. It gets people writing articles about the Pirates shopping Cole, or wondering what the Pirates would get from the Twins, and so on. I know this process too well. When this site was a free site, with revenue based solely on advertising, we jumped at the opportunity to get the most out of every trade rumor, even the smallest ones. This process is so widespread because trade rumors sell and bring in the biggest traffic. So you see a constant trend of the smallest rumor getting blown up to something it was never reported to be.
That’s not to say that rumors can’t develop. We might hear a rumor down the line that other teams are asking about Cole. We might also hear a rumor that the Pirates are listening to offers. And it might go further to say that the Pirates are in discussions to trade Cole to a specific team.
But we haven’t heard those rumors yet, and this simple rumor doesn’t predict those future rumors. That’s the disclaimer with rumors. Most of them are like this one, just saying that a team asked about a player. That’s a standard practice across baseball, where teams will inquire about literally every free agent and every player who has a remote chance of being traded. Until something more concrete comes out, it’s best to just take the comment at face value, and assume nothing will come from it, since nothing typically comes from those rumors.
Gerrit Cole’s Importance to the Pirates
That disclaimer out of the way, I’m not going to discuss Cole and the Twins. Instead, I want to look at the idea of trading Cole, and specifically, his importance to the Pirates. Cole is not a guy who is untouchable, but that depends on the situation.
If the Pirates are planning on contending in 2018, they can’t trade Cole. Their biggest issue in 2017 was that they had one of the worst offenses in baseball. I see room for improvement in 2018, but not enough to take them from one of the worst offenses to one of the best. They’re still going to need their pitching staff to carry them and make up for a poor offense.
The starting pitching was slightly above league average last year, which wasn’t enough to make up for the offense. That included league average production from Cole and Jameson Taillon, who are both capable of top of the rotation stuff.
In order to contend, the Pirates will need Cole and Taillon to pitch like top of the rotation guys. They could use one more top of the rotation guy, but that’s mostly because you can’t count on pitchers to stay healthy and consistent from year-to-year. If they get that production from Cole and Taillon, they will be on the right track to being contenders, and offsetting a weaker offense.
The problem with trading Cole and trying to contend is that he’s their best chance for top of the rotation production. They’re estimated to pay him $7.5 M in 2018. They won’t get a top of the rotation guy for that price. A reclamation project will most likely cost eight figures. A non-reclamation guy will cost a lot more per year, or a lot in prospects, plus the same type of cost.
In theory, the Pirates could trade Cole, then add someone else to replace him as a top of the rotation guy. That would allow them to add to the farm system, while also avoiding losing anything from the majors. But if that’s an ideal situation, then you’d wonder why the team trading for Cole wouldn’t just add the alternative option instead.
If the Pirates are going for it, then they need to keep Cole. Which means that no matter how many teams ask about him, it wouldn’t make sense to trade him.
If they aren’t going for it, then it would make sense to shop him around and trade him. There’s no point keeping him around in a rebuilding year when he’d only have one more year of control remaining after the season.
It’s been written a lot that what happens with Andrew McCutchen will signal what the Pirates intend to do in 2018. If they keep him, it will signal they are going for it. If they trade him, it will signal they could be looking to rebuild. Gerrit Cole is in the same situation, and maybe more than McCutchen. I could see a scenario where the Pirates could trade McCutchen and still try to contend in 2018. But I find that much more difficult when considering how badly this team needs pitching, and how difficult it would be to replace Cole’s upside on the team.