The Tampa Bay Rays have been able to keep their farm stocked with talent mostly on their ability to trade starting pitchers. Over the years the Rays have traded off Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, and others. Alex Cobb was the first Rays starting pitcher to reach free agency.
The Pittsburgh Pirates traded the 2011 first overall pick in Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. Cole has two remaining years of team control through arbitration. In 2018 he will earn $6.75MM and depending on his production should be in line to earn $10-12MM in 2019. Cole is affordable for almost every team and should produce significant value over the $17-20MM he’s likely to earn over the next two years.
When Cole has been healthy he’s been a very good pitcher. The problem is he’s had two fully healthy seasons (2015 and 2017) where he has thrown 200+ innings and in his other two MLB seasons he has thrown fewer than 140 innings. Mostly he’s been in the three fWAR ballpark, but in 2015 he put up an elite 5.5 fWAR season with a 2.60 ERA and 2.66 FIP.
In return for Cole the Pirates received RHP Joe Musgrove, 3B Colin Moran, RHP Michael Feliz, and OF Jason Martin. At first glance this return seems awful light.
Musgrove had a solid first taste of the majors in 2016 posting a 4.06 ERA and 4.18 FIP over 62.0 innings. He made eleven appearances with ten being starts. 2017 was up and down results wise. He was used in the rotation up until the All-Star break making 15 starts with a 6.12 ERA and 5.07 FIP over 78.0 innings. In the bullpen he made 23 appearances totaling 31.1 innings posting a sparkling 1.44 ERA and 2.68 FIP. Musgrove has very good pedigree ranking 32nd in the 2016 Baseball America Mid-Season Top 100 list the last time he was eligible. The Pirates will plug him in Cole’s vacated spot in the rotation. I believe he has a solid chance to be a middle of the rotation with five years of team control.
Moran was the sixth overall pick of the 2013 draft by the Miami Marlins out of the University of North Carolina. He was traded to the Astros as part of the package for Jarrod Cosart in July 2014. He added power in 2017. He hit 18 homers in 338 PA for Triple-A Fresno. The homers came from putting the ball in the air more often. Prior to 2017 his typical fly ball rate was around 30% and cranked that up to 40.2%. I’m not a believer in the bat, but if his gains are real there could be a useful MLB third baseman.
Feliz is a flame throwing reliever that averaged almost 97 mph on his fastball and has hit 100. In two years the results haven’t been great. He has a 5.13 ERA over 121.0 innings. Although his FIP is solid at 3.67. He’s been very homer prone with a 17.1% HR/FB rate while allowing a very low 37.2% groundball rate. He has struck out 32.7% of batters and if he’s able to match his FIP he could be a very good reliever with four years of control.
Martin was one of the more intriguing Rule Five eligible bats. He has power and enough speed to fake it in center. He probably won’t be in the majors for good in 2018 after just half of season in Double-A, but he could be a solid fourth outfielder.
The return isn’t exciting and lacks the upside you would expect for a pitcher of Cole’s caliber, but it’s likely to return value. If the Pirates end up with a mid-to-back end of the rotation pitcher, a large side of the platoon 3B, solid relief pitcher, and a fourth outfielder the Pirates make out pretty well. What the deal lacks in upside it makes up in relatively safe production that is already in the majors or MLB ready. I believe the Astros paid fair value for a three win pitcher, but are getting his elite upside for free.
The effect on potential deals for Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer
Cole’s value is somewhere between Odorizzi and Archer. Cole has the same years of control of Odorizzi and will only make about $500,000 more this year. There is no debate that Cole is the better pitcher.
Most of the red flags about Cole are true of Odorizzi. Both experienced a more inflated home run rate than they had become accustomed to. Cole was healthy in 2017 and put up roughly equal seasons to what Odorizzi did in 2015-16. Odorizzi doesn’t have the upside nor season that is even close to Cole’s 2015 season. Cole’s durability is questionable, but Odorizzi has missed some time due to mostly minor injuries. He has made 28+ starts four years in a row, but has only thrown over 170 innings once.
Odorizzi should have roughly half the value of Cole. In terms of this deal I think getting Musgrove would be a good outcome, but there are other options for teams in Odorizzi’s range. The Rays have gone down team’s prospect lists and taken gambles on more upside. They likely would need to do that again to get good value for Odorizzi.
There are still pitchers available that are better on the free agency market. Until the free agent market thins out it’s really difficult to find a team that will be motivated to make a deal for Odorizzi. It’s becoming more likely the Rays might have to wait until the trade deadline to move Odorizzi when injuries force a team to make a move.
Archer’s value is on a completely other level. For starters he has four years of team control for a total of $33.25 million. Archer has the big strikeout totals and durability that teams seek.
The bigger effect limiting the odds on an Archer deal is the way teams are protecting their elite prospects. The two teams that publicly were known to be making some effort in acquiring Cole were looking to upgrade their roster by trading pieces they couldn’t maximize. The price for the Astros to upgrade from Musgrove to Cole over the next two years was Moran. Moran is blocked in the majors by Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel. The Yankees were reportedly offering a deal headlined by either Clint Frazier or Chance Adams. So the Yankees were wiling to upgrade the rotation from Adams to Cole or trade Frazier who is blocked after the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton.
The bigger surprise is the lack of other teams that really pursued Cole. If a team was looking to the trade market for either Odorizzi or Archer they should have been very interested in Cole which would be better than Odorizzi or require much less prospect capital than Archer.
The perceived gap between the top teams in the divisions and the teams in the middle is larger than anytime I can remember. Without teams in the middle really looking to close that gap it might be a tough time trading players that would have had a market in the past that are real upgrades.
If the offseason plays out as expected it could be a very boring season, but baseball has a way of creating chaos during the season and I don’t expect this to be any different.