Let’s start with the obvious: it’s pretty easy to see why the Astros wanted to do this trade. They spent all of last year poking around for spare pitching, and while Justin Verlander was no-doubt a big pick-up, it never hurts to have too much pitching. And Cole isn’t just any pitcher, a former All-Star and #1 pick who’s received Cy Young support. He slots into a rotation with Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and one of Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, and Brad Peacock.
The Astros’ bullpen was probably weaker than their rotation at this point (as you no doubt realized if you saw any part of their postseason performance), but an extra starter lets them move two of McHugh, Morton, and Peacock into that bullpen, which is a big pick-up, plus in the event of injuries like they had in 2017, they’ll make for much better fill-ins. And with Keuchel a free agent after next season, it makes sense to try and maximize their chances in the short term.
I’ve seen some people imply that this trade was something of a robbery, though, and I think that’s not totally accurate, either. I can see where one would get that idea from, though. Just look at all those descriptors I used in the second paragraph, then look at the players the Pirates got in exchange. None of them are exactly top prospects or anything, and that’s the type of thing that we normally look for in these type of deals.
At the same time, I think it’s easy to see why Cole might not get the type of package of players we’d expect. We have a certain image of his career, and it…kind of doesn’t totally line up with what we’ve seen from him as of late. For instance, Cole has a 112 ERA+ for his career, and since his All-Star appearance in 2015, that number is 103. Fangraphs says he’s only topped 3 WAR twice, and 5 WAR once; Baseball-Reference puts that at once and never, respectively.
That’s not to say he’s a bad pitcher or anything, and especially in an environment where he needs to be basically a #4 starter. And there’s a lot of upside there; of course, there’s that 2015 season, but he’s been worth more than 2 WAR (per Fangraphs) every year of his career. He strikes out a lot of players, and doesn’t walk a lot of guys. You can see where his problems stemmed from, between injury in 2016 and dealing with a sudden leap in home runs last year in a season where the entire league seemed to struggle with gopher balls. “If someone can fix this issue” is always a reason for caution when acquiring someone, but the Astros’ staff has turned pitchers around before, and there’s a clear strategy for what to do going forward.
All that said, it’s easy to see why the return for Cole is closer to Sonny Gray than Chris Sale. In fact:
That all seems pretty similar. In twelve more innings, Cole has an ERA+ of 112 to Gray’s 115. Baseball-Reference gives Gray an edge in WAR (12.5 to 11.4), while Fangraphs favors Cole (15.9 to 12.0). This isn’t a knock on Cole at all; after all, Gray is a good pitcher! He attracted a lot of trade attention this summer! They just seem pretty comparable. How do the players they brought back in a trade stack up?
Gray got the A’s three prospects, in James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, and Dustin Fowler. Kaprielian was on the top prospect lists for Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus, somewhere between #58 and #87 (closer to the former than the latter). Mateo was a hair better, ranging between #43 and #85 (again, closer to the former). Dustin Fowler didn’t make any top 100 lists, but made most top 20 lists for the Yankees’ system.
In comparison, the package for Cole is four players but filled with more question marks. Moran is a former top prospect himself who had kind of lost that luster for a few seasons. But last year, he seemed to find his way, posting a .916 OPS at AAA. That’s good for a third baseman, and he seemed to keep it up in a short stint in the Majors. Plus, if we’re giving Cole credit for being a former #1 pick, it’s worth noting that Moran is a former #6 himself. Joe Musgrove lost his prospect status in 2016, but appeared on some top 100 lists before then. He needs to work on his stamina, as his numbers drop as he goes through the lineup more times, but in the worst case scenario, he showed in 2017 that he’s already a very competent reliever. Jason Martin and Michael Feliz are more the lottery ticket types, but Martin is still one of the top 20 prospects in the Astros’ system, and Martin has posted a K/9 of nearly 13 over 121 innings in the Majors.
Overall, I’d say that’s weaker than the return for Gray, but I would also call them similar, and it’s pretty easy to see why Cole got a little less. The Yankees got and extra postseason run with Gray by acquiring him last summer. Gray had a strong first half to recapture some of his value after his struggles. The Pirates wanted players closer to the Majors, which requires some trade-off in value, and they took a fourth player instead of three. All of that adds up at the margins.
And it’s not too hard to see how they compare, as well. Cole is good, but he’s also a free agent after 2019. The Pirates are trading two arbitration years from a player who’s run hot-and-cold at times at a position where they’ve had some prospect depth (between Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow) to cover multiple holes. The players they’re getting all have many more years of team control, including more pre-arbitration years.
Meanwhile, the Astros see a similar trade-off. They know their best chances to repeat as champs will be the next two years, so they acquired a pitcher who’s good with room for improvement without dealing away any key parts in the meantime. They keep their top prospects, their extra rotation depth helps cover for the weaker bullpen from dealing Musgrove and the vexing Feliz, and Moran was blocked between Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and super-sub Marwin Gonzalez. Cole isn’t as good as the image I had of him in my head when I heard this trade, but looking it over in more depth, he’s still a big improvement even if he doesn’t ever again become a Cy Young favorite.
But overall, I think there’s a lot to like here for both sides. Even if Pirates fans are worried about the return, I say as someone who has been following Moran and Musgrove especially, there’s reason to be excited on their end as well. It’s a great sight in what’s otherwise been a pretty dull offseason so far.