Another Gerrit Cole gem was wasted Thursday night in Arizona- his fifth straight start going at least six innings while allowing two earned runs or less without a win. The last Pittsburgh Pirates starter to do that was Pittsburgh sports legend “Hickory” Bob Harmon in 1918.
Considering the Pittsburgh Pirates are 14-22 and frontline pitching is always in demand, Cole’s name is starting to come up in trade rumors.
Without Starling Marte, Jung-Ho Kang or Jameson Taillon in the picture anytime soon, the Bucs’ 6.3% playoff odds (according to Fangraphs) may be a tad optimistic. If they aren’t in the playoff picture come the trade deadline, Tony Watson, Juan Nicasio and Andrew McCutchen will most likely be dealt anyway, so they may as well field offers on their most valuable commodity.
To be clear, the only reason to entertain a Cole trade this year is because it could yield a legendary return. They should not be motivated to unload him. Even if the Pirates fail to make the playoffs this season, they should be in good position to compete again in 2018 and 2019. Most of the “rebuilding” is behind them.
This is the equivalent of asking the girl next door out, she says no, but then she tells you that she MIGHT be at the county fair this weekend. Is it a tease or an invitation? You have to go to the ferris wheel with a giant stuffed bear you won at the bottle toss to find out. In this metaphor, the giant bear represents two armfuls of top prospects, and maybe a giant bear thrown in for good measure.
So who would be interested? Let’s start with teams that are currently listed at having a roughly 50-50 shot at making the playoffs this year. According to Fangraphs, that includes the Dodgers (97.6%), Astros (95.8%), Nationals (92.2%), Indians (91.4%), Cubs (90.5%), Red Sox (78.8%), Cardinals (62.6%), Yankees (62.6%), Rockies (49.6%) and Orioles (45%).
To be clear, the only reason to entertain a Cole trade this year is because it could yield a legendary return.
It’s probably safe to throw away Los Angeles, Cleveland and St. Louis since they do not have a glaring need for starters and will likely focus elsewhere during the deadline. Washington was unwilling to part with Victor Robles during trade negotiations with the Pirates or White Sox this offseason, and without him they don’t have enough for a package. Baltimore doesn’t have the prospects for a trade, and Boston’s farm system has been gutted after two years of Dave Dombrowski. And let’s kick Chicago out of the running because screw those guys.
That leaves Houston, New York and Colorado. All three have at least five prospects on the Baseball America top 100 list released May 11. Perhaps more importantly, they have high ranking prospects, with each club having at least one in the top 15 and three in the top 42.
A guy like Cole usually isn’t available for trade, but there are a few comparable examples the last couple years. The Phillies got a pair of top 50 prospects and a handful of other youngsters from the Rangers for Cole Hamels in 2015, but Hamels had an extra year of control and the package was lopsided by Philadelphia taking on dead salary and sending cash. The Braves flipped three years of Shelby Miller control during the 2015 offseason for Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair and Ender Inciarte. Cole is the better pitcher, but that was regarded as an overpay at the time and comically lopsided now. This past winter the White Sox turned Chris Sale into Yoan Moncada (the universal number one prospect) and some lovely parting gifts, including Michael Kopech (the number 24 prospect). Sale is a better starter and had more team control, though.
Last year, the biggest arms traded at the deadline were relievers Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon and Andrew Miller. The three are some of the best relievers in baseball, but the Yankees and Pirates got amazing returns for them. Even though teams tend to overpay for relievers, two years and two months of Cole should be worth more than any reliever.
Two months of Chapman was worth Gleyber Torres (the number two prospect in baseball according to BA), former blue chipper Billy McKinney, major leaguer Adam Warren and minor leaguer Rashad Crawford. Miller was worth Clint Frazier (widely regarded as a top five outfield prospect), Justus Sheffield (yet another top 100 minor leaguer) and a couple of throw-ins. Felipe Rivero is making everyone in Pittsburgh forget about Melancon, and Taylor Hearns could make this one of the best deals of Neal Huntington’s career.
Of course there are “non-trades” that were discussed, like the Rays wanting Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer, or the White Sox wanting that and another top five prospect for Jose Quintana, but we have a general guideline of what to look for: two or three top prospects and maybe some talent already in the majors or low level minor leaguers.
So let’s take a look at what a potential package would look like from each team. All prospect rankings are from BA’s most recent list, and let’s value each potential trade not by team need, but by what is the most talent they can extract.
A guy like Cole usually isn’t available for trade.
If Cole does officially become available, expect the Yankees to make a strong push. They loved him enough to draft him the first round in 2008 and were heartbroken when he chose to go to UCLA instead. They have been a surprise so far in 2017 and have worked hard to build a top of the line farm system. It doesn’t make sense to go all-in with a rental like Yu Darvish or Johnny Cueto in the first year of a new era.
Let’s assume young major leaguers like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are off the table. An executive told the NY Daily News’ John Harper that Cole could cost what they got for Miller: Frazier and Sheffield. Miller is arguably the best reliever in baseball, but it makes no sense that a frontline starter (with the same amount of team control) like Cole could not draw more.
To get this deal done, the Pirates are going to need to start with either Torres or Frazier. On top of that, they will need a young arm to take Cole’s place and some lottery tickets to play with. Sheffield, Montgomery and Adams all project to be 3-4 starters in the majors, so Montgomery would have the highest value since he is already in the majors.
Suitable offer: Cole for Torres, Montgomery and two low-level minor leaguers (McKinney and Donny Sands?).
The Astros haven’t been brought up in Cole talks yet, but he would be a perfect fit. They are built to compete for the foreseeable future and still have a strong collection of youngsters to offer in trade talks. Cole would slide in well between Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, JR. as the number two starter.
Most of the best players who passed through Houston’s system are in the majors right now. Assuming they’re off the table, Tucker would have to be included as the mandatory blue chipper. Martes has the better fastball now, but I think the Pirates would be more inclined for a guy like Perez, who is already throwing in the mid-90s and has room to grow at just 19 years old. Paulino has had trouble staying healthy and Reed would be locked behind Bell, so they probably are not going to be targeted.
As for a throw in, I think Mike Fiers could be a steal. He has a 5.64 ERA in Houston, but he was solid with Milwaukee for years before that. A change in scenery and a little Ray Searage magic could make him a backend of the rotation guy again.
Suitable offer: Cole for Tucker, Perez and Fiers.
The Rockies are my wildcard in these imaginary trade talks, jumping out to a 23-14 start to capture first place in the west. Their starting pitching has also been surprisingly adequate, but they need an ace. If they slump in June again and take themselves out of the playoff race, they’ll drop out of any potential talks. If not, they should make a trade at the deadline.
I believe Rodgers in the second best shortstop prospect behind Torres, and he is currently killing it in high A ball. If Kevin Newman projects to be a second baseman, he could be the shortstop of the future. Tapia is chomping for his chance in the majors, and Freeland looks like the type of guy who could work well as a back of the rotation starter or a strong reliever with his fastball-slider combo. Hoffman and Marquez could take Freeland’s place, but the odds of landing two starters seems doubtful since Colorado needs to hang on to as much young pitching as possible.
Suitable offer: Cole for Rodgers, Tapia and Freeland.
Again, this is all speculation at this point. The 2014 Pirates were also eight game under .500 in May and they made the playoffs. The season is not over yet. Getting David Freese and Adam Frazier back from the DL might just be what they need to get back in the win column.
But if things don’t start getting better soon, expect to hear Cole’s name come up on MLB Trade Rumors more and more.
Photo credit – Daniel Decker Photography