Gerrit Cole has not had the season in Triple-A that any of us hoped that he'd have. He racked up high pitch counts early on on the season, then struggled badly with control for a stretch, then gave up 12 runs (11 earned) in 11 innings over two starts on May 14th and May 19th. Since those two bad starts (the one on the 19th was particularly bad), Cole's bounced back some. He hasn't allowed a run in his last two starts. Even then, he's thrown 14 innings and only has eight strikeouts, which isn't something you'd expect from a power pitcher like Gerrit Cole.
Despite all of that, if Wandy Rodriguez goes on the disabled list and the Pirates need a starter on June 15th, I'm starting to think that Cole is going to be the best option for the Pirates. I tried to watch most of Cole's start this afternoon against Durham and despite the low strikeout total (just three over seven innings), he looked like an entirely different guy than the one that I watched towards the end of April. He didn't walk anyone and he threw 62 of his 95 pitches for strikes. In a lot of the at-bats that I saw, he got ahead in the count with 94 and 95 mph fastballs, then headed up stairs or in on the hands with 98 and 99 mph fastballs. He threw some nasty sliders and some nice-looking changeups. He broke a bat or two.
In the immediate post-Wandy injury Twitter speculation, there was a lot of talk today about how Cole hasn't "dominated" at Triple-A yet and about how the Pirates either would or should leave Cole down until he starts blowing Triple-A hitters away. I'm not pretending like that's not a concern, but for much of the year I've wondered if we shouldn't be viewing Cole's time at Triple-A this year the way we'd look at a big league starter on a rehab start or a spring training start: good results are nice, but the Pirates probably have him working on a number of things that may or may not adversely affect the topline results. A few pretty negative reports about Cole came out after he got bombed by Pawtuckett at the end of May, but those reports questioned his makeup much more than his stuff. If Cole's strikeout rate was hovering around 6 Ks/9 innings and he was throwing 89 mph with a sloppy slider, it'd be one thing. That doesn't seem to be the case at all, and to my eyes (which, as I say over and over again, are not scout's eyes) his start this afternoon confirmed that.
I suppose the question at this point is that once he hits whatever the Pirates' internal goals are for him, whether or not it's worth it to keep him in Triple-A at that point to watch him blast the doors off on a few starts. I suppose I understand why people want to see that, but at what point does the need in Pittsburgh (which is, on June 5th, a potential playoff team that might need a starter very badly) tip the scales in favor of promoting Cole a start or two early? These aren't easy questions to answer (how can you ever be sure that you're not promoting a guy too early or that he's past the point that a slightly early promotion could hurt his development? — these are eternal questions that are not easy to answer), but it sure seems like the Cole that pitched today (and presumably the Cole the time out before this one) is awfully close to being a Major League ready pitcher.
As noted, the Pirates don't need a starter for ten days. Since Cole pitched today, that means that he can start on Monday and then be available on Saturday, which is the day the Pirates will next need a starter. I say the Pirates turn him loose against Norfolk on Sunday. If they like what they see, I think next Saturday should be the day.