Diving deep into the Astros Cole trade

Why is Derek Fisher the lead image on an article about a trade he wasn’t involved in? Read on to find out.
 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Saturday, the Houston Astros traded to acquire starting pitcher Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. In return, Houston sent back four young, advanced players including pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran, and minor league outfielder Jason Martin.

What the Astros got

The most easily-digestible part of this deal is Cole. The right hander just turned 27 in September, has pitched in five major league seasons, and holds a career ERA of 3.50.

Cole was a first-overall pick by the Pirates in 2011 and was in the running for the National League Cy Young award in 2015 after posting a 2.60 ERA in 208 innings pitched.

Cole is a starter with a five-pitch “top of rotation” arsenal that features a fastball that averages over 96 mph, a sinker of similar velocity, an 89 mph change-up, a slider that comes in at the same speed as his power change, and a back-breaking 80 mph curve ball.

Most likely, the Astros will slot Cole into the 3rd spot of the rotation, with lefty Dallas Keuchelsplitting up he and Justin Verlander. The back end of the season-opening starting rotation is hazy, with (traditionally) two spots left for established high-quality starters Lance McCullersCollin McHugh, and Charlie Morton. Not to mention Brad Peacock, who pitched like an ace while providing 21 starts for the 2017 Astros during McHugh’s injury absence.

But a glut of high-quality starting pitchers is not a problem, as last year showed. The Astros had exactly zero starting pitchers in 2017 who pitched enough innings for end-of-season awards. The closest? Mike Fiers, who departed as a non-tendered free agent and held a 5.22 ERA last season. The Astros ended up giving starts to eleven different pitchers last season, and forty-three of those starts were by Fiers and Musgrove.

The Astros, recognizing that the five-man rotation is actually a myth, have upgraded their stable of starting pitchers with this trade, ensuring that any in-season circumstances forcing them to shelve a pitcher can be handled with minimal fuss.

Early speculation prior to the trade was that the Astros were looking to add to their rotation to protect against Keuchel and Morton filing for free agency after the 2018 season.

The addition of Cole does not address that issue, and instead points to the Astros recognizing that after winning the 2017 World Series, their window is seldom going to be more open than it is right now. Keuchel and Morton will still likely leave after 2018. Verlander, Cole, and McHugh could walk after 2019. The Astros apparently have confidence in their ability to maintain a strong starting rotation after this current crop leaves or becomes very expensive to retain, and have kicked that can down the road.

Cole is not without risks for the Astros though. As has been well documented, not only was 2017 the worst season of his career in terms of run prevention, it would have ranked worst among all of the Astros starting pitchers listed above. Much of that is due to an abnormally high HR/FB rate, a stat which has been proven to be largely out of a good pitcher’s control, but Cole still had at best an average season in terms of performance.

Cole has also had difficulty staying on the field. He has only reached 140 innings pitched during a season twice (2015 and 2017, both over 200 innings). With recurring injuries from all of the Astros’ starting pitchers save Verlander and Peacock over the last few seasons, this could become a major 2018 story line that impacts the Astros’ ability to repeat a deep playoff run.

What the Astros Gave Up

In return for two years of Cole, the Astros sent four players back to the Pirates. Reportedly, the Pirates favored the deal from a “quantity over quality” standpoint, but that cliché downplays what these players currently are and what they could be. Musgrove, Moran, and Feliz were all national Top 100 prospects (Top 50 in Musgrove and Feliz’ cases), and both Musgrove and Feliz came off the list due to major league eligibility, not because they lacked development.

Reportedly, the cornerstones of the deal for the Pirates were Musgrove and Moran.

Joe Musgrove (incidentally, reportedly one of the best guys to be around and very active and supportive during the Hurricane Harvey drama) just turned 25 years old but has already established his major league floor as “high quality, high leverage relief pitcher.”

In the Astros’ 2017 bullpen, Musgrove held a 1.44 ERA with a 31/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31 innings pitched. His 2.68 FIP reflects that stellar K/BB, as well as an ability to limit home runs, a skill he demonstrated in the minors.

And the skills he showed in the minors that makes him a key cog for the retooling Pirates.

Musgrove was a first-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays who came over to the Astros in a 2012 trade that sent away J.A. Happ. After fighting through a series of injuries that limited his real playing time until 2014, he made up for it by being one of professional baseball’s elite control artists. During the entire 2015 season, 100 innings split between A, A+, and AA levels, Musgrove walked a grand total of nine batters. During his AA and AAA stops in 2016, he walked 10 batters in 85 innings, while increasing his strikeout rate.

That elite walk rate has not quite translated to the Major Leagues in limited innings as a starting pitcher, but that can very easily be chalked up to rookie learning curve. With a five-pitch mix of his own, if he is able to recapture the command he had in the minor leagues and pair that with the confidence he gained while blowing major league hitters away from the Houston bullpen, there is a small but non-zero possibility that Musgrove will be as good or better for the Pirates’ rotation than Cole will be for the Astros. The stuff and skill are certainly there.

The Pirates, incidentally, already list Musgrove on their starting rotation depth chart.

Moran, after struggling in his major league debut in 2016, reportedly retooled his swing and approach to add more power. The results were dramatic – the 25 year old belted 18 home runs for AAA Fresno in only 79 games while also increasing his walk rate and decreasing his strikeout rate (by almost 10%!), hitting .308/.373/.543 overall.

In 2017, he made that (brief) transition to the majors more successfully, hitting .364/.417/.818 for the Astros in 7 games. Unfortunately, what looked to be a breakout party was cut short when a foul ball off of his own bat hit him in the face, requiring extensive surgery.

Based on his changes though, the addition of Moran (who is blocked in Houston by postseason superhero Alex Bregman), could be a coup for the Pirates.

Power has always been the knock on Moran since he was drafted 6th overall for the Marlins, and nothing he did in the minors gave scouts any reason to question that assessment until 2017.

But 2017 did happen, and it happened based on mechanical or approach changes consciously made.

It is no stretch to predict that Moran is a better option for the Pirates right now than incumbent David Freese, the definition of a league-average player, and if Moran’s adjustments stick, there is a halfway decent likelihood that Moran can establish himself as an offensive weapon and one of the better NL 3rd basemen at the plate (albeit with “nothing special” defensive ability).

Feliz, only 24 years old, was considered a great starting pitching prospect throughout his development in the minors.

As a major leaguer reliever, he has been plagued by Home Runs, but has been near-elite in every other facet. For his career, he has struck out nearly 13 batters per nine innings, has maintained an acceptable walk rate, and allows a reasonable amount of hits. With his 2016 and 2017 xFIPs of 2.67 and 3.58, many folks project Feliz for a monster breakout.

It remains to be seen if the Pirates see him as potentially an elite bullpen option or whether they want to give him another shot at the starting rotation.

Martin, long a prospect favorite of the TCB staff, is a prototypical “fourth outfielder” prospect who could play his way into a good starting role with a bit more development. He has always been young for his level, has always outplayed his competition, has a good eye, good power, good speed, good defense, and great nothing.

His biggest question will be whether he can make contact well enough to be an impact major league player. But at worst, he should have a solid major league career as a jack-of-all trades outfielder. It’s a good living.

The Interesting Part of the Trade

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this trade is what the Astros did not give up.

Fans on the interwebs hotly debated whether Cole was worth parting with top prospects OF Kyle Tucker and SP Forrest Whitley, with a majority coming down on the “no way” side of the argument.

But enough fans thought that Cole’s upside would make it worth parting with one of those two to make it worth discussing.

Matters were not helped by a jumped-gun report by Jon Morosi that a deal was reached a week ago, and rumors began to spill out that one or both of those prospects was involved in the deal.

Tucker, currently listed as MLB’s #8 prospect at MLB.com, figures to be a huge part of the Astros future, and was also reported to be untouchable during last year’s negotiations that eventually landed Verlander.

Whitley’s esteem in the eyes of industry scouts has been a volcanic rise over the past six months. Currently listed as “only” MLB’s #36 prospect, a recent report on MLB.com reveals that one exec considers Whitley to be the top prospect in all of baseball, and that three consider him to be the best right-handed starting pitching prospect, ahead even of Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani.

The only pure pitcher mentioned for best overall prospect and the only person besides Ohtani to garner multiple votes in the pitching portion of our survey, Whitley can miss bats with a lively 92-97 mph fastball, a hard 12-to-6 curveball, a power slider and a fading changeup. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 Draft recorded a 1.84 ERA in four Double-A outings in August at age 19, joining Zack GreinkeChad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Dylan Bundy as the only prep first-round pitchers to reach that level during their first full pro season since 2000.

”I’ll take Forrest Whitley,” a second baseball-operations executive with an AL team said. “He has a power arsenal of pitches with multiple swing-and-miss offerings, along with an efficient delivery and a stress-free arm action for the durability to log innings.”

But common reports listed Tucker and Whitley as “untouchable” in trade talks, so their exclusion in the Cole deal should have come as no surprise (even to Pirates fans).

More interesting is that one has to go fairly deep on the Astros’ “young asset” depth chart before coming to Moran and Martin, the only players in this deal still qualifying as prospects.

Not traded: RHP J.B. Bukauskas, taken in the middle of the first round in 2017; 1B/OF Yordan Alvarez; RHP David Paulino, another major league ready power starter; the Perez’s, Cionel and Hector, highly-regarded starting pitching prospects.

Also not traded were some other young major leaguers that fit the same mold as Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran. Francis Martes, another former Top 50 prospect, would likely have been more desirable than either Musgrove or Feliz, due to his higher upside and current major-league readiness. Still an Astro. Tyler White, a third baseman who has already shown far more success at the major leagues than Moran (although this is explainable by Moran’s 2017 outburst and higher prospect pedigree). First Baseman A.J. Reed fits the mold, but the Pirates currently have a young top prospect 1B in Josh Bell.

Perhaps most notably, Jerry Crasnick reports that the Astros made outfielder Derek Fisherunavailable in this deal.

Fisher was perhaps the name that fans bandied about in speculative offers for Cole. It was common to see suggestions of “Fisher, Martes, and…more!”

To me, this was the most interesting non-aspect of this trade, for several reasons.

First, it verified an observation by the author that while many teams’ fans will offer up fifty cents on the dollar in their fake trade offers, Astros fans tend to be willing to give up far more value in theirs. Looking back at the Verlander and Cole trades, not to mention the trade that acquired catcher Brian McCann, the actual trade return for those players has been far less than what #AstrosTwitter (and also Houston sports talk radio) has been willing to offer. Perhaps this is the by product of not remembering what having a winning team is like?

Second, that Fisher was reportedly unavailable tells us a lot about how the Astros value him. His 2017 rookie season was underwhelming, to say the least (.212/.307/.356 with 5 homers and 3 stolen bases in 53 games).

Like most sports fan bases, Astros fans have a tendency to lean towards the “what did you do for me lately?” mentality. Fisher’s treatment as simply a piece to acquire Cole on social media was reminiscent of how the fans were eager to offer up Bregman and more! last season in fictitious offers to land pitcher Chris Sale.

In reality, Bregman’s boring but decent rookie season was a precursor to a year that established him as one of major league baseball’s premiere hot corner players.

That’s not to say that fans should expect a similar output from Fisher next season. But Fisher has dominated (not using that word lightly) every level of competition, including a 2017 AAA line of .318/.384/.583 with 21 homers and 16 SB in only 84 games. He also has the pedigree, as a 37th-overall draft pick from a good college program. His tools have been compared favorably to those of World Series MVP George Springer – only Fisher has been described as one of the fastest players in the major leagues.

Aside from the Astros presumed high value placed on Fisher as a future asset, one can read between the lines and understand why the club has not been in a huge rush to fill what appears to be a question-mark in left field in 2018.

Marwin Gonzalez was miscast as a left-fielder and provides the most value to the club playing nearly every day at six different positions. Carlos Beltran is gone. Nori Aoki is gone.

That leaves in-house left field options as Fisher and recently-recovered Jake Marisnick. If Crasnick’s reports of Fisher’s exclusion from this trade tells us anything, it is that perhaps the Astros view Fisher as the opening day left fielder, and one with a very long rope. Certainly, one can reasonably expect him to be just as useful as Aoki and Beltran were in 2017, with a high likelihood of exceeding their output.

From that standpoint, addressing the outfield may be no more than the addition of a veteran to be “Fisher insurance”, in the vein of Cameron Maybin or the like.

Conclusion

The Cole trade was a clear win-now, win tomorrow move for the Astros in that they acquired a strong top-of-rotation type starter without giving up their most important long-term assets.

It was also a value win for the Pirates, in that they received three major league players who each retain very high upside and have already established themselves as “good major leaguers” at worst, plus an interesting and toolsy prospect.

But finally, the exclusion of Fisher, and by extension Martes, from this deal give fans some insight into the short- and medium-term plans that the Astros have for their club.

The deal appears to be a win-win for both clubs. The Pirates improve immediately and for the future at multiple spots, and the Astros strengthen a club that has the opportunity to establish itself as one of the sport’s dynasties over the next several seasons.