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June 11, 2013
The Situation: Pittsburgh left-hander Wandy Rodriguez is suffering from inflammation in his left forearm, causing him to miss a start and forcing the Pirates to look for a replacement in the rotation. Enter Gerrit Cole, the top-ranked pitching prospect on BP’s preseason rankings, who will make his major-league debut on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
Background: A first-round pick of the Yankees in 2008, Cole opted not to sign and instead honored his commitment to UCLA, where he topped the Bruins’ rotation for three years. In 2011, the Pirates made him the no. 1 overall pick in the draft and signed him with an $8 million bonus. The right-hander made his official pro debut in 2012, dominating High-A Bradenton through 13 starts. He allowed just 53 hits in 67 innings while striking out 69 batters en route to a 2.55 ERA. The Pirates pushed him to Double-A Altoona in the second half of last season, and he responded with a 2.90 ERA and over a strikeout per inning in 12 starts. After another promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the 2013 season, Cole has posted a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts with just 44 hits allowed in 68 innings, though he has seen his strikeout rate dip to 6.2 whiffs per nine innings.
Scouting Report: Cole fits the physical profile of a workhorse frontline starter, standing 6-foot-4 and checking in at 240 pounds. He is a solid athlete with excellent strength in both his upper and lower body. His delivery is clean and repeatable, and he does a good job of making adjustments to his mechanics on the fly. His ability to consistently repeat his mechanics gives him a plus command profile long term and should help his entire arsenal play up a bit. Cole’s fastball has sat in the 94-95 mph range this season and reached as high as 98 mph when he needs a little extra. The heater shows excellent movement in addition to its plus-plus velocity, making it a true swing-and-miss pitch that can completely dominate hitters.
Cole’s slider is a second plus-plus pitch with good deception, tight spin, and extremely sharp, darting movement thrown in the mid-80s and peaking at 89-90 mph. When I saw him earlier this season, Cole’s fastball and slider were strong enough on their own for him to enjoy sustained success in the majors. With work, his changeup could also become a plus pitch, though it has been inconsistent so far this year.
The biggest challenge Cole faces is maintaining his intensity from one pitch, hitter, and inning to the next. He has looked bored at times in Triple-A, causing apparent lapses in focus and occasionally resulting in his being hit hard. When he is dialed in, though, Cole can be completely unhittable. His raw stuff is that of a frontline starter, and his physicality matches that projection. Now he just needs the mental side of his game to catch up to the rest.
Immediate Big-League Future: Cole’s future in the big league rotation is directly tied to the status of Wandy Rodriguez’s left arm. If Rodriguez returns quickly, Cole will either be forced back to Triple-A, or the club could consider having him replace right-hander Jeanmar Gomez in the starting rotation. Cole is the future anchor of the Pirates’ rotation, and if they feel he is ready for a full-time job and any monetary ramifications are in the rearview mirror, they will make room for him on the 25-man roster. Regardless of whether he takes his next rotation turn in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis, Cole should be expected to experience immediate success in the big leagues. —Mark Anderson
Fantasy Impact: A week after one of most exciting young bats in the minors gets the call (and immediately dominates), we get an elite arm to allocate our free agency dollars, waiver wire priority, and general excitement toward—assuming he’s available. The future stud might not be up for long, but that won’t stop the fantasy baseball community from pouncing on the unlimited upside alone. Cole’s Triple-A work point toward his future no. 1 potential, but his component skills leave a lot to be desired, as he sports a meager 17.5 percent strikeout rate and a 10.5 percent walk rate.
However, as our minor league crew here at BP has cautioned many times: be careful with the box score scouting of minor leaguers when you can’t also get eyes on him or read the reports of folks who have scouted him in person. Cole might just be dealing with a case of what Zach Mortimer calls “the Triple-As”—think senioritis for prospects. I’d be more concerned about the walk rate if it weren’t built on a quartet of starts in which he walked 15 of 81 batters faced. Since then, Cole has walked 13 of 170 (7.6 percent) in his last seven.
We won’t know until he pitches in the major leagues whether his less-than-dominant Triple-A stats were attributable to restlessness, fine-tuning of his game, or an actual issue. And since Cole is one of the top prospects in baseball, there isn’t time to sit and wait to see how he does before deciding whether to pick him up. The truth is that he will already be on a team in most leagues, although there are still several formats that don’t allow you to roster minor leaguers until they officially hit the big leagues. Owners in those leagues will have a better idea of whether Cole will be a one-and-done or someone who will get an extended look.
Even if he’s a one-and-done, it’s time to roster Cole in most formats (10-team mixers with scant reserve rosters needn’t hold him if he’s immediately sent back). His debut outing will dictate a lot of the bidding, but mixed leaguers should be focusing somewhere around the low-$20s as a peak, especially given the risk of a very short initial stay. Cole’s upside alone does bump up the price, and if you do invest 20-plus percent of your budget on him, you’re committing to keeping him even if he is sent back to Indianapolis after Tuesday’s outing. —Paul Sporer
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark