Hey Pirates fans, about that Cole trade…

This is an article about me being right and an entire fanbase being wrong. Ordinarily, I try to avoid being smug, insufferable, and generally unhumble. But sometimes, you can’t help accidentally sitting down to write, “I told you so,” using several hundred words.

In January of 2018, the World Champion Houston Astros shocked the baseball world by trading for starting pitcher Gerrit Cole.

It wasn’t a shock that the trade happened, as various news reports had previously connected the Astros with the Pirates “ace”, but rather the composition of the parts returning to Pittsburgh.

For those literately astute, I readily admit that this paragraph is a textbook digression from the point. I used “ace” in quotes, because to that point, Cole hadn’t been very ace-like. He had one season that was super great on a scale from one to awesome, and then a bunch of seasons that varied between “pretty good” and “good but not quite great”.

Pirates fans, at the time of the trade and beforehand, valued Cole like one of the best pitchers alive.  Today, Cole has a 1.86 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 68 innings pitched. If he stays on last year’s 203 inning pace, he could reach over 300 strikeouts during the regular season, a feat managed only by Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw during the past fifteen years. The fact that Pirates fans turned out to be right (due to the Astros changing his approach, not because of anything he had previously done) is an egregious use of hindsight in evaluating the trade.

The trade went down thusly: Cole went down to Houston, and in exchange, the Pirates received Major League infants and a quasi-prospect.  To Pittsburgh: pitcher Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, reliever Michael Feliz, and minor league outfielder Jason Martin.

Pirates fans were apoplectic.  In a trade with Houston, many of them were expecting BOTH of the Astros’ national Top 10 prospects, Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley, plus more.  Never mind that such trades just aren’t made anymore. Never mind Cole’s actual performance that didn’t merit such a return. Never mind.

Because of their crushing disappointment, Pirates fans (and national media, let’s be fair!) were quick to criticize the trade from Pittsburgh’s standpoint. Let’s be honest and say that they brutalized it.

Prominent Pirates fan sites, while admirably covering the deal from all aspects, hovered between depressed acceptance of a moribund baseball life and outright vitriol, particularly if one dipped into comments sections. Like a fan base in shock, they understandably reached for whatever rationale they could come up with, including the predictable “blame the system” approach.

None of these players are the slam dunks that many expected the Pirates to receive for a player like Cole, but this kind of trade may have had less to do with Huntington’s individual team-building philosophies and more to do with the balance of power in the league.

It’s undeniable that baseball has again devolved into a “haves versus have-nots” kind of format. There are a handful of teams (the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals) that are obvious odds-on favorites to compete for a World Series in 2018. While there are a few other teams on the brink, more than half of the MLB right now is either in the process of a rebuild or teetering on the brink of one.

This disparity, combined with the league’s increasingly austere luxury tax policy, has skewed the market heavily in these teams’ favor. In years past, competitive teams were eager to shell out big money for high-end free agents or sell their best prospects for bona fide major league stars. But these recent super teams already have the big league talent and top-tier prospects. With the exception of the Indians, they have money to burn, too, but the luxury tax provides a convenient excuse to not spend it frivolously.

This strikes the observant reader as extreme revisionist history, as it came on the heels of the cash-strapped, TV-deal-less, league-changing, previous-owner-mangling Astros losing 416 games between 2011 and 2014. Including Houston in a diatribe against teams that seemingly have stacked the deck against small-market Pittsburgh seems disingenuous. But one can hardly blame a local fan for an in-the-moment reaction, no matter how dubious the logic. Despair abounded.

Fun quotes from readers:

Any other GM would have received at least one decent player out of this deal, there is not one player that is going to contribute to this team in any way except as a low level piece of crap.  I’m not a Cole fan but these teams were interested in him . if they didn’t want him fine, he wasn’t breaking the bank. This is just a joke.

Ouch.

Yankees trade 3 mos. of a relief pitcher and get Gleyber Torres and Adam Warren. Pirates trade 2 years of a top-flight starting pitcher and get grade B- prospects.

Yikes.

There was a lone voice in the darkness for Pirates fans.

And it was mine.

“Hold your horses,” I said. “The Pirates got very good players, here. Better than you know.”

I cited Joe Musgrove’s impressive minor league performances, predicting that his command and ability to get strikeouts would make him a very good starting pitcher, with the upside to be as good as Cole was with the Pirates, and a worst-case scenario of an elite reliever.

I pointed out Michael Feliz’ strikeout peripherals and indicators that his Major League ERA was bad-luck induced.

I referenced Colin Moran’s swing changes in 2017 that had led to a .308/.373/.543 caompaign in AAA, and that he was a Top 10 draft pick

I said that all three were former Top 100 prospects who had graduated due to service time, not because they started performing poorly.

I even talked up Jason Martin, a favorite prospect among people that I trust.

They weren’t really having it. “Of course YOU’RE going to say that. You’re an Astros fan.”

Mkay.

I WAS FREAKING RIGHT.

Calendar turn to 2018. Yeah, Cole has been a monster. Know who else has been great? ALL FOUR OF THE PLAYERS RECEIVED BY THE PIRATES.

Let’s start with Martin. At Double A this season at only age 22, Martin is batting .338/.397/.568 with 5 home runs. He has increawsed his walk rate and slightly decreased his strikeout rate. His power indicators are higher than at any point of his career outside of Lancaster’s launching pad. A projectable star? Nah. But perhaps he has boosted his stock to the point where he could be considered a possible regular instead of just a very good fourth outfielder.

Michael Feliz has been doing Michael Feliz things with the Pirates’ major league club.  A 4.15 ERA that belies his 2.93 FIP (he has always sustained better FIPs than ERAs), but lowering his walk rate and still managing over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He is a very strong relief pitcher who still has the memory of being a starting pitching prospect not too far in the rearview.

Joe Musgrove got hurt, so that delayed his ability to prove Pirates fans and national pundits wrong about the trade. But in his debut last night…boy, oh boy, he could not have made a stronger statement.  In sixty-seven pitches over seven shutout innings, Musgrove dominated the cardinals, striking out seven batters in the process without allowing a walk. He was the first pitcher to manage seven innings with less than seventy pitches since Greg Maddux (Greg Maddux!) in 2008.

Colin Moran has been a top 5 offensive third baseman in the National League. He currently is hitting .259/.353/.415 (113 wRC+) with four home runs and an 11% walk rate against a tidy 16% strikeout rate. Not bad for a rookie who was written off as a “throw in type”, though pretty close to what I predicted.

Astros fans should be glad to see these guys succeeding because they were some of the guys we closely followed during the brutal rebuild. Astros fans should be even gladder that they are doing so in the National League.

Because these B-grade throw-ins from a joke of a trade in which the Pirates received not one player who will contribute in any way….these guys are instrumental in the Pirates’ 28-22 record and second-place standing and current Wild Card playoff contender.

Sometimes, it’s nice to be right, especially when predicting something good.