The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation will receive an infusion of talent on Tuesday night.
The Pirates No. 1 prospect, Gerrit Cole, will make his major-league debut when he takes the mound against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum. Prior to the 2013 season, I ranked the 22-year-old pitcher as the No. 1 prospect in the Pirates’ system and the sixth-best prospect in all of baseball. The California native has been on the prospect landscape a long time. He was selected by the New York Yankees in the first round of the 2008 draft (28th overall) but spurned them for a career at UCLA. After his junior year, in 2011, the prospect’s value was at an all-time high and Cole was taken first overall by the Pirates.
He didn’t begin his pro career until 2012, but after starting out in A-ball, he reached Triple-A at the end of his first season. Cole returned to the highest level of the minor leagues in 2013 and produced a 2.91 ERA with just 44 hits allowed in 68 innings. After posting a strikeout rate of more than nine batters per nine innings, Cole’s rate has dropped to just 6.22 K/9. The dip is not as alarming as it initially might seem.
During the offseason, while researching the Pirates’ Top 15 list, I had a front office contact tell me what Cole needed to do to improve his game. “The next level for Gerrit will be continuing his maturation process as a professional pitcher, specifically how he uses his weapons to effectively and efficiently attack major-league caliber hitters,” I was told. At the same time, a scout told me Pirates pitching prospects typically had underwhelming strikeout rates because they’re taught to favor two-seam fastballs — rather than four-seamers — to pitch to contact and to keep their pitch counts down.
I watched Cole’s last minor league start on June 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A affiliate. He looks the part of a workhorse: A big league pitcher — he’s 6-foot-4 — and weighs 240 pounds. He came out throwing strikes and attacking the zone while pitching off his fastball. His first two pitches were fastballs at 94 mph and 95 mph before veteran minor league outfielder Rich Thompson singled. The opponents’ second hit against Cole came in the third inning and didn’t make it out of the infield. From that point batters managed only one more hit, and Cole ended the game with just three hits allowed and one walk in seven shutout innings.
Cole’s heavy fastball is so good he used it almost exclusively the first time through the lineup. He displayed a mature approach and clearly wasn’t worried about striking out batters. I saw his heater up as high as 98 mph, with explosive arm-side run, and I’d probably give it a 70 rating on the 20-80 scale. His slider, though, was inconsistent. The best breaking ball I saw in the game was a downward breaking curveball at the end of the third inning that resulted in a line-drive out to the third baseman. After favoring his heater in the first three innings, he mixed in all three of his secondary pitches, starting with his second time through the lineup. He made the Rays’ top prospect Wil Myers — who went 0-for-4 — look quite ordinary.
What worried me was that both his slider and his changeup came in around 86 mph to 88 mph and I’d prefer to see more separation in velocity between the two offerings. He fought his command in both the third and fifth inning where it appeared he was rushing his delivery. I’m not crazy about the delivery, either. It’s somewhat stiff through his trunk and upper body. He’s strong frame should help his body hold up longer than some pitchers, but, in the long term, I worry about the stress he puts on his shoulder.
Cole ascends to the majors on a hot streak and he looks ready to help the Pirates chase down an elusive playoff berth. In his past two starts, he’s allowed just five hits and two walks in 14 innings. He should hold his own at the big-league level based solely on the strength of his plus-fastball and improved command and control. It will be the development of his secondary pitches that determines how quickly he becomes an impact player for his organization.
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