As we draw closer and closer to the end of the season and it becomes more and more apparent that the Pirates will, at the very least, be one of the National League's wild cards this year, one of the biggest questions around the team has been about Gerrit Cole and his availability through the playoffs. We know how cautious the Pirates are with their young pitchers and it's clear that Cole's workload has increased quite a bit this year (he's at 166 1/3 innings after throwing 132 last year), but no one's been sure exactly what the Pirates' plan for Cole down the stretch is.
I don't think we have to wonder anymore. Neal Huntington talked to FOX's Jon Morosi about Cole yesterday and laid things out in pretty explicit terms, especially given the way that the Pirates' front office tends to be evasive about these things:
“We’ve been asked before, ‘Is he an option out of the bullpen?’ ” Huntington said. “If we (have) four starters who are better, then, sure, he can be an option out of the bullpen. But it wouldn’t be a move to the bullpen because of pitches.
“Every one of our pitchers has a hard pitch count. But based on where he is right now and where we project him going forward, he should be available to us through the World Series as a starting pitcher.”
This jives pretty closely with what I expected for Cole way back when it became apparent that Wandy Rodriguez wasn't a lock to return to the Bucs in 2013; people put quite a bit of focus on innings and Cole will throw a lot of innings this year, but that the Pirates would surely have a more sophisticated way of measuring his workload this year.
The bit about the hard pitch count is really interesting, because it sheds some light on the organizational philosophy that we could previously only guess at. The reason that the team (rightly) didn't freak out about Mark Melancon's heavy usage early in the season is that I'm not sure Melancon even broke a sweat on the mound until July given the way he breezed through innings. It's also been apparent all year that Cole and Jeff Locke are kept pretty closely to a 100-pitch limit. Cole has gone over 100 exactly once, on August 2nd. Even on Monday, when he did a better Yu Darvish impression than Yu Darvish was doing, he was pulled after 92 pitches rather than start an eighth inning, which he almost certainly could've handled.
Tom Tango has some interesting thoughts about Cole's pitch counts and what he thinks Cole's ceiling probably is based on Huntington's comments. Whatever happens, I think it's clear that 1.) the Pirates won't push Cole beyond whatever they believe his limit is and that 2.) they don't seem to think he's approaching that limit.