The importance of Gerrit Cole

If I asked you to name the ten best position players in Pittsburgh Pirates' history, we could have a debate that lasted for days. In no particular order, Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Barry Bonds, Arky Vaughan, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner, Kiki Cuyler, Fred Clarke, Ralph Kiner, Max Carey, Tommy Leach, and Bill Mazeroski all spent significant time in black and gold (or blue and red, as it was in the early days), carving out their own special niches in baseball history. That doesn't even mention the Al Olivers and Brian Gileses and Bobby Bonillas and Andy Van Slykes, who all had shorter but still very good Pirate careers. 

If I asked you to name the ten best pitchers in Pittsburgh Pirates' history, we could have a debate that lasted all day, too, but only because we'd have trouble finding ten names that belong on the list. By career WAR, the Pirates' ten best pitchers of all-time are Babe Adams, Wilbur Cooper, Bob Friend, Sam Leever, Ed Morris, John Candelaria, Deacon Phillippe, Jesse Tannehill, Vern Law, and Rip Sewell. Leever, Tannehill, and Phillippe pitched for the Pirates around the turn of the 20th century. Adams' rookie year was 1909 and he pitched through 1926. He was, for the longest time, the answer to the trivia question, "Who is the only rookie to start and win a Game 7 of the World Series?" John Lackey joined him in 2002. Cooper pitched for them in the 20s, Sewell in the 30s. and 40s. Ed Morris was an Allegheney for five years, from 1885 to 1889. According to a conversation I had with Tom Singer on Twitter the other day, the team doesn't even recognize the seasons the team played before they joined the National League in 1887 as being part of franchise history. Baseball was barely even baseball back then, anyway. 

Given the lengthy history of the Pirates, I've always found the dichotomy between hitters and pitchers strange. Gerrit Cole isn't likely to tip that scale much. He's got six years as a Pirate after this one; it'd take 25.8 WAR over these 6+ years for him to replace Sewell as #10 on that list. That's doable but far from a certainty. Still, it's been a long time since the Pirates have had a prospect like Cole make it to the big leagues with hype and expectation all intact. In 1996, the Pirates had the first pick in the draft and they took Kris Benson with it. Benson was a similar prospect to Cole at the time; big frame, big arm, ridiculous college numbers. The Pirates of 1997 handled Benson the same way the current Pirates have handled Cole: they started him out at Advanced-A, and when he blew the doors off of the Carolina League they moved him quickly to Double-A. Benson got hit hard with Carolina in 1997, though, and he got hit even harder with Triple-A Nashville in 1998. By the time he made his big league debut with the Pirates in 1999, he'd dropped from Baseball America's seventh best prospect in 1997 to their 59th best. Benson had a lackluster rookie year, he seemed to be coming around by his second year, then he blew his elbow out. He ended his career with an ERA+ of 100. He was perfectly average.

After Benson, the Pirates drafted a pitcher in the first round of the draft every year from 1998 to 2003. Those pitchers were, in order: Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, and Paul Maholm. Maholm has had a nice enough career (though it took leavin the Pirates for him to really find himself) and Burnett has carved out a role for himself as a solid left-handed reliever. The other guys? Let's just say that Johnston and Bradley technically had better Major League careers than Van Benschoten and Bullington, because by never reaching the Majors they'd have a WAR of 0.0. After an odd two-year burst of drafting competence that brought Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates then picked Brad Lincoln and Danny Moskos. Let's not even go there. 

Now it's Gerrit Cole's turn. Cole's trip through the minors hasn't been without bumps, but he's coming to Pittsburgh with the same fastball velocity and nasty slider that he had when the Pirates drafted him out of UCLA. His changeup; the pitch everyone said that he needed to work on to become a true big league ace, seems like it's made some big strides this year. Maybe most importantly, he's joining the Pirates at a point in the season where they absolutely need him and at a point where a good start to his career could actually be a difference-maker for a team that's on the cusp of contention in 2013. 

For the last three seasons, the Pirates' pitching staff has been something of a Frankenstein's monster. Mostly made up of spare parts and castoffs and reclamation projects, these cobbled together rotations have surprisingly worked for a while before destroying everything that the Pirates hold dear (uh, metaphorically, of course). Cole represents something entirely different; a homegrown young pitcher with that still has practically no limit on what he can do with his talent that he hasn't put on himself. 

He also represents something bigger: an open window. When the Pirates called up Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez all within a year or so of each other in 2009 and 2010, they were referred to as "The Cavalry" — the group of young players that would represent a changing of the guard and a change of fortunes for the Pirates. Those four haven't all had storybook careers to this point, but McCutchen, Walker, and Alvarez all have varying levels of involvement in the Pirates' early-season successes of 2011, 2012, and this year. It's also clear, though, that those three players aren't quite enough. If you put Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon (hopefully around this time next year) into that group, though? If everything breaks right, that's a core that can go places. 

Of course, things rarely go exactly according to plan in baseball, and so I'm getting ahead of myself in more ways than one here. What's important for now is this: the Pirates are in a playoff race, and they have the ability to add one of the best pitching prospects in baseball to their rotation. It's impossible to know where things will go from here, but this is the exact sort of event that every Pirate fan has been waiting patiently for for quite a long time. Now let's hold our collective breath and hope everything goes well.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.