Analysis

Williams: Analyzing the Gerrit Cole Trade, and Wondering if the Pirates Are Still in No Man’s Land

Gerrit Cole was traded to the Astros tonight. Photo Credit: David Hague
Williams: Analyzing the Gerrit Cole Trade, and Wondering if the Pirates Are Still in No Man’s Land

I figured the Pirates would end up trading Gerrit Cole at the worst possible time for me. That ended up being with my best friends in town for the weekend, and right when the first of our all-you-can-eat sushi was delivered to the table. I got the alert, saw four names in return, including a few I was already familiar with, and in between bites I was studying up. Needless to say, there’s a lot to digest here. And then there’s the breakdown of the trade.

I had some instant thoughts on the trade, with the immediate reaction being that the Pirates didn’t get enough. I also had the feeling that they might have some nice MLB pieces, and could be successful in a quantity approach. But that raises the question of whether they’re trying to compete in the short-term, and in a sense, if they’re trying to remain in No Man’s Land.

I’m not going to provide any immediate takes, and this isn’t going to be a traditional column where you know what my stance is at first, and then I break down why that’s my stance. Instead, I’m going to walk through each part of the deal, and come to a conclusion at the end, which is basically what I do for every trade and every transaction, except that you don’t see my work as blatantly.

So here we go…

Gerrit Cole

I feel like I don’t need to describe Gerrit Cole, although I do need to give my stance on him, since opinions on him were so split. He was one of the top pitchers in the game from 2013-2015 by the numbers, and that’s not something you can objectively argue, unless your definition of top pitchers is limited to 5-10 players. He didn’t return to those numbers, due to injuries in 2016 and due to home runs in 2017. I could see him bouncing back in the future, with the home run problem and health not being as big of issues. He was the biggest trade chip the Pirates had, and while his value might have been lowered, I still think it was pretty high, and he was seen as a potential impact pitcher.

Colin Moran

I don’t know how the trade breaks down in terms of who to prioritize first, but I’m going with Moran, since his ability to play third base is the most interesting. The Pirates only have one long-term third base option, and that is Ke’Bryan Hayes, who will start the 2018 season in Double-A. I think Hayes could be more than an average third baseman, with breakout potential if his power increases. But I don’t believe in putting your eggs in one prospect basket, which is why adding a guy like Moran is a good move.

There could be some sleeper potential here, based on Moran’s stats in the last year. He greatly increased his power in 2017, hitting for a .235 ISO in Triple-A, with his previous minor league best being a .153 ISO in Double-A in 2015, and most years ending up around a .100-.110 ISO. The best part was that he added this power while seeing a decrease in his strikeouts, and while maintaining a good average and walk rate. These changes came due to an overhaul of his swing, aimed at going for more lift and better launch angle. There would be questions about whether Moran can continue this going forward, as his results are limited to half a season of at-bats which came in the hitter friendly PCL. There’s also the question of how much drop off in the numbers he will see.

There’s nothing holding Moran back from being the starting third baseman going forward. David Freese has shown that he’s not durable enough to be a starter, and the Pirates will be rebuilding and hoping for a quick reload, with Moran now being an important piece of that reload. If he can show that the 2017 numbers were the real deal, and something he can carry over to the majors, then that’s a big addition for the Pirates, getting a third baseman with a promising bat for the next six seasons.

Joe Musgrove

Musgrove didn’t have the best numbers in the Houston rotation last year, but did put up strong numbers in the bullpen. You’d have to think that the Pirates would want him as a starter, although I’d have questions about the need to add another starter. They have a lot of options in Triple-A or just making the jump to the majors. Musgrove adds to that depth, and you obviously can never have enough pitching. But to me, Musgrove only adds to that depth. He doesn’t give the Pirates a guy who can be better than a back of the rotation guy, and it might even be questionable that he could remain a starter. His fastball had good velocity, but was hit around, while his slider showed some strong results.

He’ll give the Pirates more depth in either the rotation or the bullpen, and my question after this move is whether they could use that added depth to move Ivan Nova and go with a young rotation next year. The big issue with the rotation is that they now lack top of the rotation options, which is a problem that should be solved when Mitch Keller arrives, possibly in 2019. That’s more an issue with the team, rather than this trade.

Michael Feliz

Feliz makes me think of a right-handed Felipe Rivero at the time of that deal, and the Pirates can only hope things turn out that way. He’s got velocity, getting his fastball up to 99.5 MPH and averaging 96.2. He’s got a slider that can be a dangerous strikeout pitch, leading to a 32.1% strikeout rate last year. The problem is that his control is poor, and he walks 10% of the batters he faces. He’s also had issues with the long ball.

Rivero also had control issues, and the Pirates got him to trust that his stuff was good enough and attack the zone with it. That’s not an easy feat, and for every Rivero success story, there are plenty of examples where a player didn’t figure it out. If Feliz can figure it out, then the Pirates have a dangerous duo in the late innings with Rivero and Feliz. And honestly, if there’s one area where the Pirates should get some optimism that things will work out, it’s in the bullpen, adding a late inning arm and hoping everything clicks for him to pitch in the late innings.

Jason Martin

The Pirates have Austin Meadows as their outfielder of the future in Triple-A. They have some interesting outfield prospects set to make the jump to West Virginia this year. But if Meadows doesn’t work out, or if Gregory Polanco continues to have injury issues, then there’s a long wait until one of those younger guys arrives. Martin gives the Pirates an interesting outfield prospect in the middle of that pack. He’s been hitting for a lot of power for the last two years, and carried that over to Double-A. His strikeout rate has some concerns, but isn’t out of the ordinary for a power hitter. His walk rate dropped this year, and that will be something he needs to maximize value going forward.

Martin is a center fielder, but there are questions about whether he’d stick at the position. Honestly, he doesn’t need to stick there in the Pirates’ system, and his power looks like it could handle a corner. However, Baseball America pointed out that some evaluators don’t see him having enough power for a corner spot. He went unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft, although I think that speaks more to him not being ready for the majors, and being unlikely to be protected all year at this stage. It’s impossible to say how the Pirates evaluated these guys in the trade, but I think it’s easy to assume that Martin is more of an extra and a wild card, rather than part of the main return.

What Did the Pirates Get?

It’s hard to not sound optimistic when writing about prospects and young players, because the nature of the writing is that you’re talking about what the players could become if most goes right. But the unsaid thing in every evaluation is that nothing is guaranteed, and you can’t count on every player to work out. I do think the Pirates got some good pieces here, with some upside.

Moran could be a starting third baseman, with the chance for an impact bat if last year was the real deal.

Musgrove seems like a back of the rotation starter, and might have the chance to be a middle of the rotation guy if all goes well. But that might be too optimistic, or expecting too much to go well.

It’s hard to avoid the Feliz-Rivero comparisons, and avoid dreaming about what that combo could become.

And Martin provides an interesting outfielder who might have a shot at hitting his way to being a starting option at the corners.

But you need to look at the other side of things in each of these cases.

What if Moran doesn’t stick at third, or doesn’t carry his offense over to the majors?

What if Musgrove can’t be a starter, and is limited to being a reliever?

What if Feliz doesn’t improve his control? (The answer here is that he’s a capable reliever, but a guy who could be so much more, which would be a frustrating situation.)

What if Martin ends up only a bench player at best, due to the lack of walks and the reports about his power not matching the stats?

The reality is that these scenarios will end up somewhere in the middle. Not everything will work out, and not everything will go wrong. The key is getting the right mixture of things that go right. And looking at this deal, I think one player is the key to the success: Colin Moran.

I don’t see Musgrove being more than a back of the rotation starter. I could see Feliz being a good late-inning reliever. And Martin is a wild card. But if Moran doesn’t work out, then I don’t think any of those players can do enough to really headline this deal. It seems the Pirates have two good potential complementary pieces here, and one guy who could be an average or better third baseman, with the value of the deal largely being carried by Moran.

When you’re trading your biggest trade chip, you can’t afford a bad return. This is a fan base that complained daily about parting ways with Juan Nicasio a month early, and complained everyday for a year about salary dumping Francisco Liriano. The Pirates and Neal Huntington will never live it down if the Cole trade doesn’t work out. And their chances really revolve around Moran for this deal to be really successful.

Are We Still in No Man’s Land?

My thought when seeing this deal was that the Pirates may not be out of No Man’s Land just yet. As in, they might not be committing one way or another on a rebuild versus going for it approach.

It’s hard to avoid that thought when the biggest piece of the trade appears to be an MLB-ready third baseman.

It’s hard to avoid that thought when the next two pieces are guys in the majors who have seen some adjustment issues.

It’s hard to avoid that when the lowest level prospect is a guy in Double-A with limited upside, rather than a lower level lottery ticket like the Pirates got with Oneil Cruz in the Tony Watson trade last year.

Granted, this might be a bit unfair. Moran was set to be rated the number nine prospect in Baseball America’s upcoming rankings. But if his numbers from last year are legit, you’d have to argue him up that list. And he’s technically a prospect, so the Pirates did get a prospect in this deal. But this does make you wonder whether they could have gotten some lower level guys with higher upside — basically committing to a rebuild and doing something similar to what teams like the White Sox have done in recent years.

This trade kind of fills some needs for the Pirates. They’ve now got a third baseman of the future, which was a question mark heading into the off-season. They have another starting pitching option, which isn’t the biggest need, but something you can’t have enough of. They have a potential pairing for Felipe Rivero in the late innings. And they boosted their outfield depth in the minors.

The problem with filling needs in a trade is that you have to look at it in one of two ways. Either it’s just a convenient coincidence that they managed to get some of their biggest needs filled in this deal — in a trade with a team that had better ranked prospects who didn’t play positions of need. Or, it’s the worst case, where they’re still trying to contend while rebuilding, and taking a lower return in the process.

I feel this question will be unanswered until we see how other moves shake out. What will happen with Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison? Will they be traded or retained, and will those trade returns be similar deals where MLB-ready talent is the return?

It could very well be that this deal works out for the Pirates, and it’s just coincidental that it happened to fill some of their needs. But the problem right now is that we still don’t have an answer to whether the Pirates are out of No Man’s Land, and unfortunately we have another sign that they could still be in the middle, not really committing one way or the other.

Analysis

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 AccuScore.com, 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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