This weekend, after a few days of back and forth on the rumor front, we finally got sweet, sweet confirmation that Houston was indeed making a swap with Pittsburgh in order to acquire righty starter Gerrit Cole. The return for the Pirates was RHPs Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin. Let us dig in and enjoy the meatiest tidbit we've had to sink our teeth into for a while during this lackluster offseason.
Last year, Houston had the best offense in baseball and, ICYMI, won the World Series. Despite all those riches, they did not have the best rotation. They already worked to resolve that situation when they wisely traded for Justin Verlander mid-season. While they'll still have Verlander for a few more years (and will hope that he will continue stay effective, which was, well, part of the deal), they've had some health issues in their rotation and have to consider the fact that Dallas Keuchel will be a free agent after this season. Enter Gerrit Cole.
Cole was inarguably one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2015 (2.60 ERA, 2.66FIP, 208 IP, 5.5 fWAR), earning himself 4th place in Cy Young voting that year. The former first-round pick spent quite a bit of time on the DL during his 2016 season, but he was still valuable when he was on the field (3.88 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 116 IP, 2.5 fWAR), albeit not at the levels that he was in the prior season. Cole's 2017 outing may have been healthier, but it didn't improve in the stats department (4.26, ERA, 4.08 FIP, 3.1 fWAR), thanks largely to a newly discovered penchant for letting balls leave the park, with a 1.4 HR/9 in 2017 (vs. a 0.6 HR/9 over his first four seasons).
The new homerun-friendly world we're living in, whether you want to chalk it up to juiced balls or the fly ball revolution, has been unkind to a plethora of pitchers, and Cole has suffered with the best of them. Generally, Houston's pitching staff has relied less heavily on fastballs, and this could certainly help Cole in terms of his production going forward. Houston will have two years of Cole to play with, but they did give up quite a bit in terms of control of the players they gave up, even if those players don't have quite as high a floor or ceiling.
Some shade has been thrown in Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington's way because there was potentially a Yankees' top prospect on the table for the Bucs. But the package Huntington received back was far from devoid of value. Musgrove was a dominant reliever down the stretch for Houston with a 1.44 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 1.44 BB/9 in 31.1 innings. It's not clear whether he'll put it all together as a starter, but he has five years of control left for the Bucs to play with. Given the going prices for relievers these days, and all that time left before free agency, it's not unreasonable to see Pittsburgh turn Musgrove into a new package all on his own. And that's assuming (in all likelihood correctly) that he doesn't figure things out and take the next step towards figuring it out as a starter.
Then there's the rest of the package: Feliz, who throws hard but hasn't put it all together just yet. Moran, who hit a respectable.308/.373/.543 in AAA but is blocked at his position by a certain Alex Bregman. Martin, who is a toss-in, but, still, you never know.
Grade for Pittsburgh: B-
The players that Pittsburgh received back in the deal aren't the super-shiny prospect (singular) that they might have received from New York. That colors the immediate response to the Pirates' return, but there's definitely upside with the package they received. Pittsburgh spread the wealth with the majors-ready/near-ready players they got back for Cole. While it's unlikely that any of the players they received back in the deal will be the bedrock of the next contending Pittsburgh team, they got some solid pieces that they can trade for those players, and that's probably the idea. Cole was trending down over the last couple seasons and the Pirates' outlook for the near future isn't great.
Grade for Houston: A-
Teams that win World Series have pronounced tendencies to dance with the ones that brung 'em. More often than not, they trust the core that took them over the finish line to do the same again, and any upgrades they make are minor, a bullpen addition here, a utility infielder there.
The Astros are not suffering from that problem, as they traded away a number of moderately useful players for a singular pitcher. A pitcher who has Cy Young potential, but also has question marks.
Even with those questions, Cole, as a presumptive Number 3 starter, gives Houston arguably the best rotation in either league on paper, when you are starting out with Keuchel, Verlander, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh. The Astros have fully declared their intent to be the first team since the turn of the millenium to put together back-to-back World Series wins. And even if it doesn't work out, you can't fault them for trying.