The Gerrit Cole Trade Has a Perception Problem

I suppose what I should say is that the Gerrit Cole trade has two perception problems. One, it’s clearly just a bad look for Pittsburgh. It’s generally a bad look when a major-league team has to trade away an established major-league talent, and with Cole and then Andrew McCutchen going out the door, it’s a twin reminder of how the Pirates failed to build on a tremendous run of success. I don’t know how much more the Pirates reasonably could’ve done, but there’s forever that lingering question regarding ownership’s commitment to winning. This is nothing new. It’s a reopening of wounds that never healed.

There’s also, though, another aspect. The Pirates have been heavily criticized for the return package they got for Cole from the Astros. I have no interest in trying to figure out whether the Pirates got the best package possible. I don’t know what else was truly on the table. Maybe more would’ve been available in July; maybe Cole’s stock would’ve dropped. All we know is what the Pirates got. My read of the consensus is that the Pirates didn’t get enough. But my read is also that the Astros have a little something to do with that. Specifically because the Astros are unusually good and deep.

Back at the winter meetings, there was a conversation I didn’t expect to have as often as I did. It was a conversation that revolved around teams with bad farm systems. Every farm system gets ranked. Great farm systems get ranked. Awful farm systems get ranked. There are, in some places, rankings of all the farm systems together. But there are also regular farm-system rankings, rankings of the top 10 prospects or rankings of the top 25 or 30 prospects within a given organization. These lists are available all over, and a recurring theme in conversation was that the best prospects in bad systems probably end up overrated. It’s not really their fault, and it would be a tough thing to control for. But in even the worst system imaginable, there’s still a best prospect, and a next-best prospect. The human mind is drawn to any number-one ranking. It can be hard to evaluate them within proper contexts.

The idea, more simply: The best Mariners prospects are probably overrated. The best Marlins prospects are probably overrated. They’re the best prospects from bad prospect pools, but we still can’t help but focus on names at the tops of lists. Does this make sense? It’s all speculative and unproven, but I see how it would work. And if you’re following along, I’d like to now suggest something similar, or opposite.

From the Astros’ side, the Cole trade has been widely embraced. And why wouldn’t it be? Cole isn’t as good as he’s looked before, but he’s fairly young and highly talented, and he’s an impact addition to a club that will be trying to defend a championship. Everyone loves landing an All-Star player, but even beyond that, the return package doesn’t hurt. I’m sure you’ve read this reasoning in a number of places. The Astros got Gerrit Cole, and they did so without losing a top prospect, and without losing anything of significant value from the major-league roster. Isn’t that always the dream? It’s typically the impossible dream. It’s something Astros fans get to celebrate, and it’s something Pirates fans can’t ignore.

From a certain perspective, the Pirates dealt their ace to the Astros, and they couldn’t get anyone important. You always want to be able to land someone important. A headliner. Given how we usually think of trades, if something looks good for one side, it can’t look so good for the other. I just find that this is an unusual situation. To put it as clearly as I can, I think the return package looks worse than it is because the Astros have too many good players. Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Jason Martin — they’re all valuable, they’re all potentially useful big-leaguers, but they didn’t mean much to the Astros, because the Astros are too stocked.

Musgrove was likely to pitch out of the Astros bullpen. He already started doing that in 2017. He would’ve been a regular Astros reliever in 2018, too, but he wouldn’t have been the closer, nor would he have been the primary setup man. For sure, when Musgrove started in 2017, he wasn’t great, but this is mostly the result of circumstances. The Astros’ rotation is so good and deep that, right now, even Brad Peacock seems ticketed for relief. There are just too many starters. Musgrove wasn’t likely to get an extended shot.

Feliz was likely to pitch out of the Astros bullpen. He’s more of a true reliever than Musgrove is, but Feliz was going to be somewhere low on the depth chart. Might not have made the team out of camp. Too much talent. As for Moran, he wasn’t about to replace Alex Bregman at third base. He also wasn’t about to replace Yuli Gurriel at first base. Similar to Musgrove, Moran was blocked, waiting for some kind of injury or under-performance. And finally, Martin has consistently hit in the minors, and he’s only 22, but he’s not Kyle Tucker, and he’s not Forrest Whitley. He’s not Derek Fisher. Martin hasn’t been on a whole lot of radars, because there have been too many other players to follow.

In context, the Astros were able to acquire Gerrit Cole without meaningfully hurting themselves. Yet that’s only the Astros’ context. Now the Pirates have four new players, and they’re going to be in different situations. If you just concentrate on the four players as they are, and forget about where they were in Houston, you can see how Pittsburgh would’ve emerged from this pretty satisfied.

Forget, even, how Cole hasn’t pitched like he did in 2015. I’m not even worried about that right now. Let’s start with Musgrove first. Musgrove is 25, with five years of team control. Last year, he showed he’s already a quality big-league reliever. But he should probably get another chance to start. Musgrove was dominant in Double-A and Triple-A. In limited major-league time as a starter, he has a bad 129 ERA-, but that comes with a 100 xFIP-, and you know which one of those is more reliable. According to Steamer, Musgrove projects as something like Michael Fulmer. It’s far too soon to write him off as a starting option, given the high-minors track record, and given Musgrove’s ability to throw consistent strikes. It’s hardly out of the question that Musgrove is a roughly average starter today. Could be more than that. He’s a Pirate for a while.

Moving on to Feliz, his projection is almost identical to that of, say, Raisel Iglesias. Feliz is 24, with four years of team control. While his big-league ERA- is a lousy 125, his xFIP- is a promising 74, and, again, you know which one of those is more likely to hold up. As a reliever lately, Feliz has generated strikeouts and walks at rates similar to Brad Hand. The velocity is real, and against the best competition around, Feliz has never struggled to miss bats. He doesn’t even have much of a platoon split. Feliz has yet to consistently avoid major damage in the majors, but the indicators are all encouraging. Feliz ought to step in as a weapon.

Moran? I wrote about Moran yesterday. He’s 25, with six years of team control. He’s to be considered something of a post-hype prospect, but before getting hurt in 2017, Moran’s profile improved greatly after he folded in a swing change, designed to hit more balls in the air. It’s a change that’s been attempted by dozens, if not hundreds of hitters, and while it doesn’t always work, Moran showed what was by far his career-best power. It’s perfectly sensible to question how much it might keep up, but as an average defensive third baseman, Moran should be a big-leaguer for the bulk of the season ahead. He can play right away, and the swing change gives him legitimate upside.

Martin is a lot further away. He’s 22, and he’s likely to go to Double-A. I don’t think of Martin the way I think of Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran. He might never reach the majors. But he’s been a successful minor-league hitter at each stop, and he’s another guy who’s worked to hit a lot more balls in the air after debuting as a professional as more of a ground-ball hitter. Martin could help in the majors in 2019. As a fourth piece goes, he could have a real future.

It’s undeniably true that the Astros are simply too loaded to try to make the most of these four players. Maybe not so much Martin, but in some way or another, Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran were going to be blocked in 2018. That made them easier to part with. But the Astros’ context should mean nothing, as far as the Pirates are concerned. It doesn’t matter to the Pirates that these players weren’t among the Astros’ headliners. It doesn’t matter to the Pirates that Colin Moran isn’t Alex Bregman. Here’s what matters to the Pirates: They lost two years of a good starting pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine starting pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine relief pitcher. They brought in a guy who could be a fine third baseman. And they brought in a guy who could be a fine future corner outfielder. Three of the players are ready to help right away, and they’re not blocked by nearly as much talent. In Pittsburgh, they’ll get their opportunities. Whether they flourish, I couldn’t tell you, but they deserve the chance. Just because these players were expendable for Houston doesn’t make them any less valuable to another, less-fortunate club.

Again, I don’t know if Neal Huntington did as well as possible. I don’t and can’t know that. I do know that I like this trade more and more for Pittsburgh, the more that I look at it. You can argue whether they should’ve focused on players who are even younger, maybe players with higher ceilings. Ceilings, though, are subjective, and mostly unknowable. The Pirates exchanged one big-leaguer for three. I don’t think it’s the step back it’s been interpreted as. That’s just mostly the fault of how good the Astros are.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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mikejunt
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mikejunt

A form of analysis I have seen sometimes but think these kind of trades would benefit from is the one where the prospect guy looks at the players and says “This person is now the Pirates #2 prospect”

Musgrove and Feliz are no longer prospect eligible, but Moran is, and placing him within the Pirates’ system makes him a look a lot better than where he places within the Astros completely loaded system.

DBA455
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DBA455

To this point:

I think it would be helpful if Fangraphs moved from a pure “prospect” ranking to one that including a more comprehensive look at an organization’s young players, without knocking them off the list if they’ve graduated to the big leagues.

Best assets <24 years old, for example. (I think Kevin Goldstein used to do this at BP a long time ago).

Telling me that Triston McKenzie is the Indians 2nd best minor leaguer informs me much less about the future of the club that reminding me that Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are still 3-4 years younger than the average AAA player.

Moran seems to be perceived as the 3rd piece of the trade here, and he's about the #5 Astros prospect. (Per MLB.com). So lets assume that if Musgrave and Feliz hadn't gotten promoted <2 years ago, they'd rank ahead of him. Do you think Pirates fans might feel differently about this deal if the headline was "3 of Astros top 10 prospects" for 2 years of Cole? I do. Perception indeed.

Better *still* would be to give each guy on each of these lists some absolute value – so, to your point precisely, we can see how the #10 guy in Houston compares to the #3 guy in Pittsburgh.

(And yes, this is assuredly a lot of work and yes, it's extremely easy for me to sit back and lob these requests in from my couch. If you'd like any more ideas for labor-intensive projects that I won't contribute any labor to, I'm sure I can drum some up.)

mikejunt
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mikejunt

BP still ends every organizational prospect report with a ‘top 10 talents 25 or under’ that is super duper useful because it makes teams that just graduated talent look great instead of barren.

Another thing the BP prospect guys do that I wish the FG guys did sometimes is give every player 2 ratings: Overall Future Potential (OFP), the upside rating, and Likely rating. There’s a difference between an OFP 70/likely 50 prospect and an OFP 60/likely 55 prospect.

The Pirates have to be more interested in the second kind of player for a lot of reasons Kiley explained yesterday.

In fairness to the FG guys, BP just does organizational top 10s, whereas FG reviews every prospect viewed to have a MLB future (FV40 or higher), which is why we get things like “NY Yankees top 35 prospects”, putting two grades on every player is a ton of extra work because they are already doing so many more players.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth

Kiley also used to do 50th percentile/70th percentile triple slash lines.

CaseysPartner
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CaseysPartner

The problem is non of these prospects are on the list Sullivan never mentioned…..the Top 100 list. That’s the list that matters. Some teams don’t have anyone on those lists while others have several.

I don’t remember the last time I looked at team lists to rate prospects in value. If they can’t make a Top 100 list then they aren’t much.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

The two most important pieces in this trade are no longer prospect elligible, but almost certainly would be ranked if they were (SP3 upside/SP4 downside MLB ready is a lock to be in the top 100).

That they have held their own against MLB competition is an advantage, not a hindrance.

willl
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willl

We can look at past top 100 lists (I just looked at 2014-2017) to get an idea how those not-prospects-anymore players were considered recently. Basically, it’s not good.

Musgrove was rated int he top 100 once, at 86th best in 2016 by BA. MLB, Fangraphs and BP never considered him a top 100 prospect.

Feliz was never considered a top 100 prospect by any of those 4.

So while neither are eligible to count on top prospect lists, it’s unlikely they would have been considered for them in the first place, as their performance in the minors wasn’t arousing the attention of scouts.

Dave T
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Dave T

Musgrove is an odd example for prospect lists. He ended 2015 with 45 innings in AA. Then after 2016 he wasn’t eligible for prospect lists because he’d thrown over 50 innings in the majors.

Johnny Dickshot
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Johnny Dickshot

Musgrove was #32 in BA’s 2016 mid-season top 100. Perhaps coincidentally, Clint Frazier reached #21 on that same list, which I believe was his highest prospect rank at BA. Not a big difference there in highest ranking, or the timeframe for when they reached it.

Gina
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Gina

Musgrove made two mid season top 50s BA, and I think BP in 2016

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth

What’s the differentiating factor between Musgrove and, say, Jordan Montgomery (who never made a Top 100), after his first AAA stint?

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

If no longer eligible prospects were eligible, then these two would be nowhere near that list. That list would be the top 100 overall players in MLB.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

This is just dumb, 100 is a completely arbitrary number and many, many top players never were ranked.

JackS
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Member
JackS

For what it’s worth – Musgrove and Feliz both appeared in the Fringe 5 in 2015. Musgrove did so 3 times (and once in the ‘Next Five’). Feliz did so once (and once in the ‘Next Five.)

I love that column and it’s whole point is to identify players who aren’t raked in top 100 prospect lists that could potentially be useful in the majors.

Plenty of hits (some massive ones) and misses on those lists as well.

Seems relevant to this discussion.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Kiley actually included a “best under 25,” including FV, back in the day.

dcweber99
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dcweber99

I don’t hate the trade as a Bucs fan, but Moran is slotting in according to most places as the 4th or 5th prospect in the Bucs system. The highest I saw him in the Astros system was also 5th. It’s not like the Bucs are bereft of talent- Meadows, Keller, and Hayes all are consensus higher-regarded than Moran, while the shortstops (Newman and Tucker rank similar or higher, depending on your source).

As far as the trade itself, I think Feliz will be an absolutely dominant reliever, and Musgrove will be a Fine starter. Plus with Crick coming over in the Cutch trade, the Bucs have one of the better bullpens in the NL. Unfortunately, I think (and especially if the trade Harrison) they’re not going to score enough to make that bullpen worthwhile. Josh Bell should breakout, but who knows if Marte is merely a PED product, if Polanco will give a crap, and if Moran can get to the roughly .825 OPS I’ve seen that’s now expected of him. They built a tremendous position of strength at the least valuable position.