Commentary

Gerrit Cole, wanting pitching, and trying to stay patient with the Phillies

We’ve been talking all offseason about how the Phillies should trade for a young, inexpensive and controllable starting pitcher to bolster a relatively sorry starting rotation. That it would be the next step in a patient and thoughtful rebuild that was beginning to bear its fruit.

Saturday, while Philadelphia was watching the Eagles grind out a tight win against the Falcons, and head to the NFC Championship, the Houston Astros acquired pitcher Gerrit Cole. He’s 27. He has two years of team control remaining and will earn $6.75 million in 2018. He is what you would call young, inexpensive and controllable.

Gerrit Cole is also pretty good. He suffered a down year in 2017 but still finished with a 4.26 ERA, which would rank him second among Phillies starting pitchers, behind Aaron Nola. Further, he struck out 196 and walked 55, good for a 23.1 K% and 6.5 BB%. For comparison, Nola last year had a 26.6 K% and 7.1 K%.

This is consistent throughout Cole’s career. He typically keeps a strikeout ratio in the 8.5 per nine range, and a walk ratio in the 2.5 range. That’s good; in fact, one would say Cole is a bonafide No. 2 starter with the ability of being an ace. At age 27, he could definitely grow into that kind of pitcher.

There are issues with Cole that may turn him off to the Phillies. For one he’s not an exceptional ground ball pitcher, with about 45.7 percent of batted balls against him being grounders. And his home run per fly ball rate increased dramatically last season to 15.9 percent, despite Cole previously being one of the best in baseball at keeping the ball in the yard. Also, he has two years left of control, and maybe that scares off the Phils.

But even still, if Cole were to pitch for the Phillies, he’d be competing with Nola for the best pitching numbers in 2018. He’d strike out hitters, not walk too many, likely bring down that homer rate (even in Citizens Bank Park) and keep a decent enough grounder rate. And the Phils would have an opportunity to extend over the next two years.

The Astros sent pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz to Pittsburgh, plus third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin. Experts are saying the Pirates sold low and didn’t get an outstanding return.

So what the heck, Phillies? Why didn’t they trade for Gerrit Cole?

It could’ve worked

First, yeah, the Phils would’ve been able to top the Astros’ group. Musgrove, 25, has a 4.52 ERA in 49 major league games, pitching both in the rotation and bullpen for Houston. Feliz, 24, has a 5.13 ERA in 98 major league games as a reliever. Both have considerable strikeout stuff but haven’t been able to harness their stuff and keep the ball in the yard.

Colin Moran, 25, is the top prospect in the deal; he has played very little in the majors. He’s been an up and down prospect but was good at triple-A in 2017, putting up a .301/.369/.532 line with 18 home runs and 16 doubles. Martin, 22, was most recently in double-A and put up a .273/.319/.483 line there over 79 games.

The Astros surrendered none of their top prospects – according to John Sickels at Minor League Ball Moran was No. 5 in the system and Martin was No. 13.

Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington stressed team control in what he received from Houston. He liked that three players were major league ready and would be under control for five years each.

Imagine, then, that the Phils sent the Pirates this deal:

  • Nick Pivetta, SP
  • Ben Lively, SP
  • Nick Williams, OF
  • Cornelius Randolph, OF

Pivetta is comparable to Musgrove, though Musgrove likely has a leg up with better control in his major league career. Lively is a better piece for the Pirates than Feliz (if they wanted a reliever I’d part with Edubray Ramos).

Williams is comparable to Moran here. Both have similar stories in the minor leagues and similar projections (good regulars and role players) are now just beginning their major league careers. As for Randolph, he compares well with Martin here – good hitting approach with power starting to show. The only difference is Martin is known to play all three outfield positions, while Randolph is more likely a left fielder alone.

This deal is at least comparable to what Houston sent Pittsburgh. The Phillies could’ve topped this (say trading Randolph for Adam Haseley), but nonetheless, the Astros got their man.

Devil’s advocate

Now, maybe you’re angry that the deal happened and the Phils were nowhere to be seen. But remember what I said above:

  • Cole isn’t the most suitable pitcher for Citizens Bank Park.
  • He has just two years left on his deal.

I’d imagine the young, controllable the Phils want has at least three years of team control. It’s why Carlos Santana received three years from the Phils; the front office probably believes that by 2020, the team will be ready to contend for a championship. Why have Cole for two guaranteed years, just to see him exit before 2020 and leave the Phils scrambling for another starter?

This doesn’t mean the front office doesn’t think the Phils can contend before 2020. But look at baseball right now – the Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals (even possibly without Bryce Harper after this year) are all in exceptional position to reach the postseason over the next two years. That leaves two playoff spots for 12 teams. With that kind of risk, it doesn’t make sense for the Phils to put all their eggs in a basket that empties before 2020.

So 2020 is a minimum, it seems. Chris Archer is controllable through 2021 (with options), while Marcus Stroman is a free agent after 2020. Heck, Noah Syndergaard is a free agent after 2021, if we’re looking further down the line.

The point here is Cole works for a team already in contention: the rich get richer.

Reflection

Watching the Eagles game yesterday, we again thought about how astonishingly quickly all of this came together. Howie Roseman was able to move on from Sam Bradford and bet hard on Carson Wentz. The team saw something, and believed the time was right for the Birds to strike, so Roseman signed Alshon Jeffery and traded for Ronald Darby and Timmy Jernigan. It paid off – the NFC East had a down year as Wentz turned into an MVP candidate. The Eagles vets coalesced under Doug Pederson, as if this was the team it should’ve been all along. And in Saturday’s big playoff win, it was evident the Eagles were built really well. And, it seems, astonishingly quickly.

But it didn’t actually happen overnight. The vets had been here for years. Some, especially on the defense, had to go through years of changing schemes and coaching philosophies, from the Wide-9 and being coached by Juan Castillo, to Chip Kelly’s assault on player stamina, back to the Wide-9 under Jim Schwartz. The guys were here; they just needed the right direction and that final piece.

Wentz happened to be the final piece. Once he was in place and performing well enough, Roseman struck in the offseason with the flurry of deals that turned a mediocre but promising team into a Super Bowl contender.

The Phillies aren’t there yet. It sucks and we’ve been patient forever, but they aren’t there yet. I’m not sure if we even understand just how browned out and empty the organization’s stock looked five years ago. The best prospects in 2012 have amounted to one very good late-innings reliever (Ken Giles), one middle reliever (Trevor May), a hitter still trying to turn into a steady regular (Maikel Franco), a great utility player (Freddy Galvis), a guy who can’t stay healthy (Roman Quinn), and one actual regular who’s worth keeping (Cesar Hernandez). That’s it.

In five years the Phils have rebuilt their entire system, primarily off their Latin scouting strengths. They have outstanding prospects now in the single- and double-A levels, which means we’re about two years from seeing them in pinstripes. They have decent hitters throughout the system, much of them great depth and ready to make the show within two to three years.

It takes years to build a good system in baseball, especially when the system was previously a ghost town.

Gerrit Cole would’ve been nice, but he wouldn’t have been the right pitcher right now. It makes little sense to bring him in, then see him go, just before the Phils really get good.

Maybe the Phillies can snag Archer or Stroman, but if that means giving up Sixto Sanchez or Scott Kingery, maybe it won’t happen.

But next year? 2020? You can bet those moves are more likely.

We’re close. We’ll get that guy. And once we do, time’s ours.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ed

    January 14, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Tim Malcolm. Your article is one of the more balanced, logical and insightful that I’ve read about the Phillies this off-season. I agree with your conclusions too. I think either Archer or Stroman should be pursued vigorously maybe even at the expense of Kingery because I like Cesar. Please keep up the fine reporting which doesn’t try to analyze improbable scenarios daily.

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