“I believe that it is very unlikely that we will see a trade this lopsided again anytime soon. Front offices are too smart nowadays. They understand player value.“
That was written at the end of my trade retrospective of the Wil Myers trade. That take didn’t even last a week! While the Gerrit Cole trade does not rise to that level, it is certainly an uneven exchange of talent.
After a false alarm about a week ago, the Pirates traded Cole to the Houston Astros in return for Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Jason Martin. A Houston rotation that ranked in the top five in runs allowed and DRA just got better and now has a ridiculous level of depth. The Pirates were not even able to get a player that is likely to land on a top-100 prospect list when the updated rankings are released.
The Pirates chose Cole with the number one overall pick in 2011. As a high velocity pitcher with good secondary stuff, he was seen as having ‘ace’ upside. He debuted in June 2013 and missed time due to injury in 2014, so he did not pitch a full season until 2015. Although he was not an ace that season, he was very good. He had a 3.07 RA9, 24.3 K%, and 5.3 BB%, all of which are career bests.
The 2016 season saw Cole struggle with injuries, and he made only 21 starts. He was by no means bad, but his run average shot up to a 4.42 RA9 and his strikeout rate dropped below 20 percent. What is especially disappointing is that Cole made 33 start last season and barely amassed more value than he did in his injury plagued 2016 season. His strikeout rate rose back up to his career rate, but he lost all ability to keep the ball in the park. Going into the 2017 season, Cole had a career 1.5 HR%, but that number more than doubled in 2017 to 3.7 percent. His homer to fly ball ratio was also over double his career rate. Even the lively ball does not explain that trend.
With the quality and depth of the Astros’ rotation, Cole’s impact will be minimal if he is no better than he was in 2017. The team might be a win or two better. That in addition to the depth they are getting is a great return for the lower level prospects that they are parting with.
I can’t imagine that Cole will be anywhere close to that homer prone in 2018, but it appears that it depressed his trade value considerably. Cole is a mid-rotation starter with top of the rotation upside and two years left on his rookie contract. He is making only $6.75 million in 2018 and will probably barely crack $10 million in 2019. At this level of compensation, a trade should have included at least one blue chip prospect. The Pirates could not even get a player that projects to me more than an everyday regular.
That potential everyday player is Colin Moran. Of the prospects included in this trade, Moran ranked the highest at Baseball Prospectus, though still only at ninth in the system. No other player included in this trade was ranked.
Moran raked in Triple A, hitting .301/.369/.532, but he repeated the level and he played in the Pacific Coast League, which is a hitter’s paradise. Both his bat and his glove will make playing third base a challenge. If he has to move to first base, he is really going to be in trouble, as it’s doubtful he has the bad to justify being at first. With the Pirates having a need at third base and the Astros being set there with Alex Bregman, Moran was a perfect fit for this trade. He just shouldn’t be the player headlining it.
In a way, Musgrove resembles Wade Davis in the sense that he was terrible as a starter (career 5.46 RA9) but outstanding as a reliever (career 1.26 RA9). The Pirates are really going to need their pitching coach Ray Searage to work his magic in order to get Musgrove to be a viable starter. It is unlikely to happen, but this trade is going to work out even more poorly for the Pirates if they can’t get quality starting pitching from it.
Michael Feliz is a reliever who has struck out a third of hitters faced since 2016 but somehow has a 5.10 RA9 over that time span. Again, Searage needs to help drive that run average down or else Feliz might not even be worth a roster spot.
Jason Martin appears to be a throw-in. He is a left fielder with a light bat. He will be fortunate to even be a bench player.
This return is even lighter than what the Tigers got for J.D. Martínez. Even if everyone hits their ceiling, it will do little to help the Pirates to rebuild. A player of Gerrit Cole’s caliber, upside, and minimal cost can’t be traded without at least one impact prospect involved. Negotiations with the Astros should have started with Forrest Whitley or Kyle Tucker, nevertheless, the Pirates made the deal.
GM Neal Huntington would have been better served waiting until the trade deadline if this was the best he could get. This trade looks like the organization was more concerned with saving the less-than-$20 million that will be owed to Cole over the next two years than they were with impacting their future. If Huntington is able to trade Andrew McCutchen, he had better nail it.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.