On Wednesday this past week, Houston Astro fans everywhere were teased by afternoon reports that the Pittsburgh Pirates had traded former All-Star starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Astros. Some reports even got as specific as to say that the package going back to the Pirates included outfielder Derek Fisher and pitcher Francis Martes.
As it turns out those reports were erroneous, and Astros fans everywhere lamented the loss of what would have been an impactful pickup. However, the news of the initial trade was reported with such finality that, even though it was wrong, for about 30 minutes, it FELT real, so we got to experience what Cole as an Astro felt like, almost like trying on a pair of shoes.
And guess what? It felt pretty damn good. Those shoes fit NICELY.
So when the news came down on Saturday that Cole actually HAD been traded to the Astros this time around, it felt a little familiar. When the details came out as to what Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow had given up to get Cole, it felt EXHILARATING. Outfielders Kyle Tucker and starting pitcher Forrest Whitley are generally considered the prime prospects in the Astros' organization. Not only did the Astros hang onto both of them, but Fisher and Martes, the rumored pieces of the previous deal, remain Astros, as well. WOO HOO!!
Indeed, Luhnow worked some magic here as he dealt deftly from a position of strength to secure Cole's services for a five player package that included pitcher Joe Musgrove, infielder Colin Moran, reliever Michael Feliz, and outfielder Jason Martin, none of whom are considered the blue chippers that Tucker and Whitley are.
The New York Yankees have spent this offseason trying to make moves to keep up with the Astros, whom they took to seven games in the ALCS. The trade for slugging outfielder and 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (and the $295 million in salary remaining on his deal) was the prime indicator that the "old Yankees" and their free-spending ways might be back. The Yankees were also in on talks with the Pirates for Cole, so this is a significant move by Luhnow to not only fortify the Astros, but keep a key piece away from one of their primary competitors in the American League.
Cole, who was the first overall pick out of UCLA in the 2011 MLB Draft, was an All Star in 2015, winning 19 games in the process. Since then, he's comparatively scuffled, and in 2017, he went 12-12 with an ERA of 4.26. Certainly, the Astros expect a reversion back closer to the Cole of 2015, improvement in which Astros pitching coach Brent Strom should play a key role.
If they get back to the same neighborhood as the 2015 version of Cole, the Astros will be sitting on a 2018 rotation that, when healthy, is the best in all of baseball — Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Cole, and presumably World Series hero Charlie Morton as the fifth starter. Brad Peacock would almost certainly go back to his role in the bullpen as a swing/spot starter (not a bad guy to have there), and the team would still have Collin McHugh in the fold as either another arm or a trade chip.
Contractually, Cole is set to earn $6.75 million in 2018, having avoided arbitration last week. He has one more year of arbitration remaining before free agency, so Cole is a cost effective solution these next two seasons, and represents some small insurance, at least in 2019, should Keuchel decide to leave in free agency after this coming season.
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With the handful of one-year Astro contracts that were agreed to last week, including Keuchel ($13.2 million) and McCullers ($2.45 million), Luhnow has created a window over the next two seasons in which he will have a starting rotation that is both elite and cost effective. The 2018 rotation of Verlander ($20 million), Keuchel, Cole, McCullers, and Morton ($7 million) has a total annual salary of $49.4 million. (NOTE: I will continue to beat the drum lightly to move McCullers to the closer's role, and slide McHugh in as the fifth starter. But I digress...)
The 2019 rotation, as currently constructed will almost certainly have Verlander at $20 million again, Cole on his third year of arbitration (probably in the $12 million range), McCullers in this second year of arbitration (say, $7.5 million or so?), Whitley (assuming he hasn't been traded), and whatever else. Maybe Keuchel signs long-term, maybe not.
Regardless, Jeff Luhnow found a way this offseason to take a 2017 World Series champion with virtually every significant player still under contract for 2018 or longer, and add a significant piece, a piece that tells the Yankees and others "We aren't just standing pat. We aren't going away."
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.