After weeks of rumors and a false alarm, the deal that everyone thought was inevitable finally came true. The Pirates officially traded Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros Saturday afternoon and received four players in return, 3B Colin Moran, SP Joe Musgrove, RP Michael Feliz and OF Jason Martin. Those names are not the guys that were rumored to be heading to Pittsburgh and they certainly don’t carry the pedigree of Clint Frazier, Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley, which makes this trade look bad on its face. National experts and scouts also believe this was a brutal trade for the Pirates. But looking closely at the return, the deal does have the potential to be a good move.
I asked an evaluator who scouts the Astros for his take on #Pirates Cole trade: "I think it's a brutal deal for Pitt. Musgrove and Feliz both have ML valeu, but both (as) relievers. Moran and Martin to me are throw-in typles."
— Rob Biertempfel (@BiertempfelTrib) January 14, 2018
Let’s look at Gerrit Cole first. We’ve watched Cole flourish from number one overall pick in 2011 to becoming a front of the rotation starter after his debut in 2013. While his numbers never translated to super ace as everyone expected, he has shown flashes and has always had the stuff. In 2015 for example, Cole won 19 games with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. But then you had years like 2017 where Cole went 12-12 and had an ERA skyrocketing over 4.00. The inconsistency of Cole is likely what turned teams off to offering mega prospects for him but even with his rollercoaster numbers, Cole still has a better stat line than Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer when they were 27, fueling the hope that with a change of scenery and being on a competitive team, he can finally blossom into the ace we all expected. In my opinion, getting a player like that for two years of control is at least worth a player with superstar potential. The Pirates may or may not have gotten that with one player in this deal.
Moving to what the Pirates received, the centerpiece of the deal is third baseman Colin Moran. Moran is the former 6th overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Miami Marlins. He was considered to be a possibility for the first overall pick by the Astros but they opted for Mark Appel instead. Moran was sent to Houston regardless, however, in the Jared Cosart deal a few years ago. Since then Moran has been stuck in Triple-A because he was blocked by Alex Bregman. Scouts have mixed reviews on Moran because he is 25 years old and hasn’t had extended time in the majors. He has impressed in Triple-A the past few seasons though, hitting .259 with 10 HRs and 69 RBIs in 2016 and then .308 18 HRs and 63 RBIs in 2017. Those numbers last year would have been stronger if he hadn’t been called up and injured in the majors. His major league numbers were awful in 2016, his first taste in the big leagues, hitting .130 in 25 plate appearances. In 2017, however, he was starting to flash some promise before suffering a concussion, hitting .364 with a triple and a home run in 12 appearances. Moran’s best attribute is that he doesn’t strike out much and he is a lefty that could help balance the Pirates lineup. He shouldn’t be expected to hit 30 bombs a year since most of his numbers are in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League but with a short porch in right field, his best stat line could be hitting around .280 with 15-20 homers every year. That’s not superstar potential by any means but its serviceable. If he doesn’t hit that potential, however, he could end up being the next Jeff Clement for the Pirates.
The second player of notoriety in this deal is Joe Musgrove. Musgrove has been a contributor on the Astros major league roster for two years now. Also a 25-year-old, Musgrove was a first round pick 2011 but 13th overall. With the pedigree of a starter, Musgrove has been used most recently as a long reliever out of the Houston bullpen without a permanent spot in their stellar rotation. He has started a few games though and his career numbers, outside of ERA and FIP are similar to Gerrit Cole. He throws hard with an average fastball velocity of 93-94 mph and has a changeup, slider and curve as his complimentary pitches. Many scouts think that Musgrowve is a little underrated because he hasn’t been given the proper opportunity to be a major league starter. He put up stellar marks in ERA and WHIP leading to his quick promotion through Houston’s system. While he has been brilliant out of the bullpen, the Pirates will almost certainly look to see what he can be as a starter. And with Ray Searage’s tutelage, I think it would be fair to expect Musgrove to top out as a potential number three or four starter for the Pirates in the long term.
The third piece of the deal is really intriguing. Michael Feliz is only 24 and just touched the major league level in 2016 season. He’s an absolute flamethrower, similar to the likes of Felipe Rivero. He doesn’t hit triple digits like Felipe but he does throw a 96 mph fastball that is coupled by a strong changeup and slider. He’s been a devastating strikeout pitcher for Houston, with a K/9 of 13.14 in two seasons with Houston’s top club. Despite that strong strikeout metric, Feliz has been slowed down because of his control numbers. He has been walking 3.57 batters per nine innings and that has also caused his ERA to balloon to 5.13 in his big league career. Advanced metrics, however, believe that he could actually be a dominant reliever with his FIP sitting at 3.67 and xFIP at 3.17. The Pirates have been able to help relievers with control issues in the past so if they can do the same with Feliz, he may become the best overall player that the Pirates acquired in this deal.
The final player in this deal is OF Jason Martin. Mostly a throw-in, Martin was an eighth-round pick in 2013 and had a lot of promise after hitting single-A full season ball when he was only 19 years old. Since then, Martin has been stuck in double-A, now a22-year-old without a permanent position. He hits for a solid average, .275, but he doesn’t have much pop in his bat and doesn’t have great game speed that would make him a top of the order hitter in the majors. Because of the lack of power, he doesn’t fit in as a corner outfielder and his lack of great speed makes scouts question his ability to handle center field. He looks like he’ll stick in center long term but he looks to be nothing more than Triple-A depth in the same way that someone like Gorkys Hernandez was.
Overall, I don’t like to call any trade a win or a loss until the players have some time to show what they can do on both sides of the deal. But if we’re looking at it at face value, the Astros look to have fleeced the Pirates. They gave up a bunch of players that were never going to fit in their long-term plans and didn’t have to give up any of their top 5 prospects (top 8 if you go by Baseball America). Moran is the closest thing the Pirates will get to a potential star player for Cole but that’s far from a sure thing. Cole was the Pirates best trade chip by far and it doesn’t look like they were able to extract a sure thing, bonafide top prospect for him, despite being one of the leagues top pitchers for his age with multiple years of control.
Neal Huntington, on whether the Cole trade means McCutchen, Harrison, others will be moved: "Not necessarily. … If there’s another move that makes sense for us, big picture as an organization, we have to engage on it. If there’s not, then that’s fine with us as well."
— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) January 14, 2018
The bigger reason this trade worries me is that it continues to show a real lack of direction for the Pirates. Trading Cole should have signaled a rebuild, with multiple young players with lots of potential coming in return. Instead, the Pirates received a bunch of major league ready players with less potential that can fill immediate holes for 2018. Neal Huntington even said that this deal was good for the current team and future team. It just doesn’t make sense to believe that you’re still going to be a competitor when you trade away your best starting pitcher by far just to fill a few holes with questionable prospects. I was an advocate to trade Gerrit Cole because they could get a young stud in return and that it would start the process of trading Cutch and Harrison to gear up for 2019-2020. This trade doesn’t do that, however, and Huntington has even hinted at keeping the rest of the team intact. Rob Biertempfl did tweet yesterday that fans should get some rest because there appears to be more on the horizon and hopefully he is right. If the Pirates don’t trade Cutch and Harrison, this offseason will have been a complete failure. No one was signed to fill holes that would allow the Pirates to compete and Cole was traded for prospects that won’t help this team as much as others could have.
So let’s just see what other moves the Pirates make and give Moran, Musgrove and Feliz a chance to prove their worth in the MLB before calling this trade a complete loser. But if this trade goes the way that many fans and national media members think it may, Neal Huntington may not last very long into the his new four year extension.