A week’s worth of rumors came to an end on Saturday evening when the Houston Astros officially announced their acquisition of right-handed starting pitcher Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
OFFICIAL: The #Astros have acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Welcome to Houston, Gerrit! pic.twitter.com/emJCoNScVU
— Houston Astros (@astros) January 14, 2018
In Cole, the Astros receive a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential—albeit one who has an inconsistent track record of reaching that potential. Since his breakout 2015 campaign (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 4.5 bWAR), the 6’4” righty has gone 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA for a total of 4.4 bWAR. But Cole still has youth on his side—2018 will be his age-27 season—and is under contract for two more years.
What’s more, the Astros may be uniquely qualified to help Cole rediscover his top-notch form. Cole possesses elite fastball velocity, pumping in his four-seamer in excess of 96 miles per hour. But the pitch lacks movement, and major league hitters are getting better and better at catching up to straight heat. Nonetheless, Cole has retained that pitch as his primary offering, perhaps accounting for his recent spike in home runs allowed.
As a team, the Astros are moving further and further away from the four-seam fastball, and will likely ask Cole to instead turn to his sinker—a two-seam fastball with similar velocity and much better movement—to attack opposing batters.
The Houston front office is also fond of the curveball (see Verlander, McCullers, Peacock, McHugh, and Morton, to name but a few), and Cole has a good one. By swapping the four-seam fastball for the sinker and encouraging Cole to throw more curves, the ‘Stros could coax more strikeouts and weak contact from their new starter. Cole’s other pitches—a slider and a changeup—aren’t much better than average, with the slider possessing more potential. But those pitches don’t need to be notably above-average—average is effective enough, particularly when Cole has two verifiable weapons already in his arsenal.
Cole will join Dallas Keuchel (in his final year of contractual control), Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton (also in his final year), Brad Peacock, and Collin McHugh in a suddenly-crowded stable of starting pitchers. Peacock and McHugh are likely to serve as swing-men, pitching out of the bullpen and stepping up to start in case of injury or ineffectiveness throughout the season. Even without Cole, that group of starters was among the best in the league last year. With Cole in the picture, the 2018 Astros starting rotation could be historically great.
To complete the deal for Cole, the Astros sent pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran, and outfielder Jason Martin to Steel City. Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran all appeared in the major leagues in 2017, while Martin thrived in his first exposure to AA pitching. But each is also blocked from playing time in Houston by the presence of other, more established players at their respective positions. On its face, this was a modest return for a pitcher of Cole’s caliber. Especially if Houston can help unlock some more of the magic in Cole’s arm.
Who’s Number One?
The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Gerrit Cole first overall in the 2011 MLB draft. In 2012, Houston grabbed Carlos Correa with the first overall pick. In 2013, the Astros drafted Mark Appel (now pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies) in that slot; in 2014, it was Brady Aiken (now with the Cleveland Indians). That means that four of the last seven number one picks have at some point passed through the Astros organization.
The Astros’ interest in Cole was no secret. They’d been linked to the 27-year-old in a handful of reports throughout the offseason, and had initially approached Pittsburgh about a possible swap last July. When those talks failed to progress, Houston pivoted, and wound up acquiring postseason hero Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers in August. That deal, of course, ended up working out just fine. With Cole now in the fold, both of the ‘Stros’ top targets will be pitching side by side.
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