This week, the Pittsburgh Pirates made headlines as they officially began retooling their roster, trading homegrown stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen in exchange for younger talent.
On paper, this makes sense. With a 75-87 record, the club finished fourth in the competitive NL Central, and none of the three teams ahead of them (the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals) look like they’ll be stepping down any time soon. Both players will be free agents soon - McCutchen after 2018, Cole after 2019 - and likely would not be a part of the next competitive Pirates ballclub. However, the Pirates have been blasted for these trades. Fans have been outraged at the team for trading such beloved players for seemingly lackluster returns. (Sound familiar?)
Specifically, the Pirates’ trade of Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros is fascinating for A’s fans, due to the many similarities between Cole and former Oakland righty Sonny Gray, traded to the New York Yankees last July. A closer look at Cole, Gray, and the prospects received shows that both organizations did well in trading their young right-handers.
Comparing Gray and Cole
Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole have plenty in common, beyond both being traded to contenders in the past seven months. Gray is only ten months older than Cole, and both will hit free agency after the 2019 season. Both were first round picks in the 2011 draft and made impressive debuts in 2013 before establishing themselves over the next two seasons. Both pitchers suffered a rough 2016 season, battling injury and BABIP while posting the worst strikeout and walk rates of their respective careers.
However, 2017 is where their eerily similar careers split. Gray missed April with a strained lat and a strained right shoulder, but returned looking like vintage Sonny Gray. From his season debut on May 2nd until his final start for the Athletics on July 25th, Gray posted a 3.43 ERA (3.25 FIP) while striking out almost a batter per inning. This motivated the A’s to sell high rather than risk regression or injury, and the club traded Gray to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline on July 31st.
Cole managed to stay healthy in 2017 and make 33 starts, but his successes end there. While his strikeout and walk rates returned to his normal standards, Cole gave up home runs at an absurd rate. Prior to 2017, the most home runs he had given up in a season was 11, over 32 starts in 2015. In 2017, he surrendered an absurd 31 dingers over his 33 starts. 31! That’s a lot! At the deadline, Cole had a 3.97 ERA (4.19 FIP). The Pirates weren’t quite out of the race - at 51-54, the team was only 5.5 games back of the first place Chicago Cubs. As a result, the Pirates decided not to sell low on Cole and kept him to re-evaluate in the offseason. Cole finished 2017 with a 4.26 ERA (4.08 FIP).
Cole passes the eye test, coming in at 6’4”, 225 pounds and averaging 96 MPH with his fastball. Comparatively, Gray is only 5’10”, 190 pounds and has always averaged about 93 MPH with his fastball. Cole was the first overall pick in the draft and was more hyped as a prospect than Gray ever was. Cole entered 2013 as BaseballAmerica’s seventh best prospect, while Gray was not ranked in the top 100 (and had only placed 65th the year before). Cole’s best season, 2015, was worth 5.5 fWAR; Gray’s best season (also 2015) was only worth 3.8 fWAR.
So, ultimately, two very similar pitchers. Cole perhaps has the higher ceiling and reputation, but Gray has been good more recently and was performing very well prior to the trade. Due to this recency bias (and the extra half season of control the Yankees received by trading for Gray at the deadline), I’d give the slight edge in value (at the respective times they were traded) to Gray.
Comparing the Returns
Now that the dust has settled, the majority of AthleticsNation seems to think highly of the return the Athletics received for Gray. Outfielder Dustin Fowler and shortstop Jorge Mateo are both consensus organizational top 10 prospects, and have each seen time on various MLB Top 100 lists. The third piece in the deal, righty James Kaprielian, is certainly no scrub himself and could fly up those same lists with a strong start to 2018.
However, the A’s return for Gray came with incredible risk. Both Fowler and Kaprelian have yet to make an appearance at any level of the A’s organization due to major injuries suffered before the trade. Both are expected to make full recoveries, but one can never be certain. And Mateo, despite having all of the talent in the world, comes with serious makeup issues.
Oakland’s return was very much high risk, high reward. This, however, was fitting for where the A’s were in their rebuild at the time. At the time of the trade, the Matts (Olson and Chapman) had yet to break out and while the farm did seem deep and strong, it was a bit lacking in players with true star upside. So, the A’s went out and traded for three, knowing fully the risk they were taking.
The Pirates, on the other hand, have been under fire for their recent trades. While most in the industry expected a relatively small return for McCutchen, who is a rental, the expectation was that two seasons of Gerrit Cole would be worth at least one or two big-name prospects returning to Pittsburgh.
Instead, the team received what seemed to be spare parts from the Houston Astros. The package of righties Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran, and outfielder Jason Martin lacked a marquee prospect, and instead seemed to consist of expendable role players.
However, as Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs argues, just because these players were expendable for Houston does not mean they are, by any means, bad. In fact, it really means that Houston was simply too good for these players to factor too strongly into their future. Similarly, Houston’s farm system is strong, so Moran and Martin flew under the radar while Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley made headlines.
All four players comfortably fit the mold of high floor, lower ceiling. This is exactly what Pittsburgh needs at this point in their retooling efforts. Players like Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, and Jameson Taillon have each shown star potential. On the farm, Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows have incredibly high ceilings as well. So instead of targeting upside in return for Cole, the Pirates received three players that could be two-win, league average contributors as early as 2018 (and Martin, one of my favorite underrated prospects in Houston’s system prior to the trade).
It’s easy to compare the name value associated with the prospects that Pittsburgh and Oakland received in their two trades and conclude that the A’s did a much better job. However, this isn’t necessarily a fair comparison, as Sonny Gray came with an extra half season of control and had a better 2017. In addition, the two clubs clearly had different goals for their return packages.
The A’s made the right decision, taking advantage of a strong first half from Gray and selling high, turning him into three potential stars. The Pirates also made the right decision, holding onto Cole and hoping for a second half bounceback from both him and their team and, when it didn’t happen, moving him in the winter for a handful of immediate major league contributors.
Both teams did well for themselves, capitalizing on the dwindling value of their homegrown aces. Going forward, it will be fascinating to follow and compare the careers of Gray, Cole, and the players they were traded for.
All things considered, which star pitcher fetched the best trade return for his team?
This poll is closed
It’s a tie
I refuse to compare apples and oranges