What do you get the team that has everything? Even more, apparently. On Saturday evening, the Astros provided a spark to the dying embers of the offseason by swinging a trade for Pirates ace Gerrit Cole in exchange for third base prospect Colin Moran, starter Joe Musgrove, and reliever Michael Feliz. Cole, whom Pittsburgh shopped heavily in the past few weeks and was rumored to be Bronx-bound last month (and who was said to be headed to Houston earlier in the week before the trade was declared fake news), will now fortify a World Series-winning rotation that already features former MVP Justin Verlander, former Cy Young Dallas Keuchel, and hard-throwing curveball specialist Lance McCullers. In other words: Best of luck, rest of the American League.
Cole, 27, was the top pick of the 2011 draft out of UCLA (after turning down the Yankees, who drafted him in the first round out of high school three years earlier) and is built like a concrete pillar, standing 6’4” and weighing 225 pounds—your prototypical, if not stereotypical, No. 1 starter build. He fits that mold, too, slinging his four-seam fastball at 96 mph and chowing down on the innings: In two of the last three seasons, he’s crossed the 200-inning mark, and last year, he led the NL in starts with 33. Young, cheap, and productive, Cole is the kind of player that contenders lust for. After all, he’s only two years removed from an All-Star season in which he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting after posting a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings.
So why are the Pirates moving on? It’s likely that Pittsburgh’s front office, with the team coming off a 75-win season and staring up at the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals in the NL Central, believes this current iteration of the Buccos has seen its window close. Given that he’s still two years away from free agency, Cole would seem to be the kind of guy you build the next great Pittsburgh team around. But he’s about to get pricy (at least, for the thrifty Pirates): He’ll make $6.75 million in 2018 after avoiding arbitration, and that figure will spike again in ’19. And with the changes to free-agent compensation made in the current CBA, the best the Pirates would get for Cole when he inevitably walked after the ’19 season would be a pair of draft picks. Moving him now was the only option if the team decided that last year was the end of the line.
As such, Cole is headed to a new home, to the great benefit of the Astros, who somehow were not satisfied with winning 101 games, taking the AL West by roughly a gajillion games, and capturing their first championship in franchise history. As noted, Houston’s rotation is already packed: Verlander, Keuchel and McCullers are the front-liners, with World Series standouts Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock behind them, and Collin McHugh, David Paulino and top prospect Francis Martes as depth. That’s as enviable a group as any, but Cole’s presence will give the Astros a more dependable arm than Morton (a high-strikeout hurler with efficiency issues) or Peacock (whose playoff performances suggested he may be better suited to relief work) and provide some depth to a group of starters that has struggled with durability and health—particularly McCullers. It also gives them a long-term buffer against the potential departure of Keuchel, set to be a free agent after the 2018 season.
The pressing question for the Astros, though, is what version of Cole they’re going to get. His last two seasons have bounced between inefficient and ineffective. In 2016, he threw only 116 innings thanks to a triceps strain and right elbow inflammation. In 2017, meanwhile, he stayed healthy but was a mess on the mound, lit up to the tune of a 4.26 ERA and a full-season worst 101 ERA+. And just as it did to so many other pitchers last season, the home run spike hit him especially hard, as he allowed 31 round-trippers across 203 innings—1.4 per nine, or nearly three times his ’16 rate.
What’s curious about Cole’s terrible 2017, however, is that aside from his home-run rate, his peripherals suggested far better. His strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine and strikeout percentage of 23.1 were both in line with his career numbers and represented improvements on his 2016 efforts; same with his walk rates. His average fastball velocity was 96 mph, actually a touch higher than in recent years. Hitters made less contact and swung through more pitches against him, too. Only the home run seemed to bedevil him.
The solution might be for Cole to rely less on that high-powered heater and embrace his offspeed and breaking offerings. You saw him begin to do that last season, as his fastball usage dropped from 50.1% in 2016 to 41.9% in ’17. He compensated by turning more to his changeup, doubling his use of it, but he may be better off going more to his slider, against which batters hit just .229 with a .379 slugging percentage. Compare that to his fastball: .263 batting average against, .453 slugging percentage, and 12 home runs.
And you can expect that the Astros will be preaching to Cole the values of ditching the fastball. Houston pitchers had the fourth-lowest percentage of fastballs thrown in 2017 (49.6) and fifth-highest percentage of both sliders (20.0) and curveballs (14.2). As Tom Verducci noted after the World Series, Houston’s data-heavy front office has embraced a pitching mindset antithetical to years and years of history and established wisdom, and to great success. It’s safe to assume that Astros pitching coach Brent Strom will endeavor to make Cole the newest convert to going offspeed-first.
If the Astros can turn Cole around, there’s no telling how good that team can be. And even if he repeats his 2017 season, it’s not like Houston gave up much to make it happen. Moran is the headliner, a 25-year-old former first-round pick of the Marlins in 2013 out of UNC acquired by Houston at little cost three years ago. Moran raked in Triple A last season, hitting .308/.373/.543 with 18 homers for Fresno, but that came in the hitter-friendly enclaves of the Pacific Coast League and in his second tour of the league. He has upside with the bat and glove, but blocked by Alex Bregman at third base in Houston, he was expendable. Musgrove, 25, is another former first-rounder, but he’s been unexceptional as a swingman; last season, he was ripped for a 4.77 ERA in 109 1/3 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, with 18 home runs allowed in that span. He’s a back-of-the-rotation starter with limited upside. Feliz, 24, has a big arm and racks up strikeouts—70 in 48 innings of relief last year—but is also plagued by home runs (22 alone last year). He can hump it up into the high-90s but needs to solve control and command issues.
All told, it’s a disappointing return for Pittsburgh in exchange for a young, cost-controlled ace. Moran should help fill a persistent hole at the hot corner for a team that has been searching for a solution there since Pedro Alvarez went bust. But you can’t help but feel that the Pirates could have done better, particularly given the expressed interest of the prospect-rich Yankees. More importantly for the Pirates, though, is that Cole’s departure signals the end of an era in the Steel City and will likely lead to a far more painful trade for fans: Andrew McCutchen. The former MVP is a year away from free agency, and with Pittsburgh throwing in the towel on 2018, it makes no sense to hold onto him any longer.
But the Pirates’ loss is the Astros’ massive gain, and a huge blow to the pennant hopes of every other AL contender. The road to the World Series already went through south Texas; with Cole on board, the Astros have served notice that they don’t expect or plan for anyone to get through them.