I spent most of the winter bemoaning the Pirates' lack of pitching depth, but the whole time that I was doing so there was a significant elephant in the room: Gerrit Cole. Cole is in camp with the Pirates, pitching big league innings, ranked in the top ten of most prospect lists and he rose to Triple-A in his first minor league season and people like Baseball Prospectus's Jason Parks write things like this about his ceiling:
Fantasy Future: Could develop into premier starter; 20-game winner; perennial Cy Young award candidate.
As a result, I think that there's the perception among some Pirate fans that the fact that Cole won't start 2013 because the Pirates are trying to keep his arbitration clock from ticking. Whether or not that's a justifiable reason to keep a pitcher in the minors is its own debate (short answer: I think that it definitely is), but I'm not sure it's applicable to Cole here. The reality is that Cole is a good prospect and he's got a high ceiling, but I'm not sure he's such a phenom that he only needs one Triple-A start before showing up in Pittsburgh. He'll start the year out with Indianapolis because he's got things to work on, not because the Pirates are holding him down. So what does he have to work on? And when can we expect to see him?
There are a few things to watch with Cole both in spring training and in his future time with Indianapolis. The first is his changeup: his fastball and slider are already big league pitches, but there are varying reports on how much work his changeup needs. To be clear: everyone thinks that his changeup can be a plus pitch, just that he needs a bit more work on it. Kiley McDaniel watched Cole in instructs in January and wrote pretty much that:
Cole threw one curveball at 81 that he should scrap, just a slower version of the slider and only threw two changeups in the low 80’s. The changeups showed plus potential, turning over with fade and bottom but the changeup is a pitch that comes with feel, something Cole can’t have throwing it twice a game. His command was fine for the level, but would waver more than you’d like, usually missing up in the zone.
If you go back to the first link, Parks' scouting report of Cole, you'll read that while Cole's fastball meets the hype in terms of velocity, it tends to flatten out when he leaves it up in the zone. And when you read McDaniel's report, you see that Cole's remaining command issues have to do with him leaving the ball up in the zone. Whenever you read a report on Cole, even going back to his days at UCLA, that says that he has all of the disparate parts needed to make an ace (explosive fastball, plus slider, the beginnings of a plus changeup) but that for some reason his results don't quite match the talent, I'm pretty sure that this issue with the elevating fastball is why.
Do you remember the 2012 Futures Game? Cole came out throwing gas, striking out Xander Boegarts on four pitches with a fastball that touched 99 mph. Then he got a ground out, walked a hitter, and fell behind Jae-Hoon Ha (who's not a Top 100 prospect and is presumably more well known for his defense than his offense given his minor league numbers) 2-0. Cole came back with two fastballs up in the zone. Ha fouled one off, then homered to right field. I suspect that the same thing happened when Cole got lit up in his Triple-A playoff start with Indy last year. My hypothesis is this: when Cole gets excited, his command dips, when his command dips, he elevates his fastball, when he elevates his fastball, he gets pounded.
This is not a huge problem for someone with the raw stuff of Gerrit Cole. When he works out his changeup and can throw it more consistently, hitters won't be able to sit on fastballs and hope he leaves a straight one up in the zone for them. Really, it's more like fine-tuning that needs to be taken care of before he's completely ready for the big leagues.
So when will he be completely ready? Even Stephen Strasburg made six Triple-A starts, and while Cole is a good prospect that Strasburg was. Still, six Triple-A starts is a nice baseline as an ideal number. I think that we have to assume that he gets that many, because even if he just blows the doors off from the beginning it'll probably take that many starts to be sure that he's made the progress that needs to be made. If we do want to take financials into account, the Super-Two deadline (which slides from year to year) is generally somewhere around the beginning of June. PLUS, every minor league start will be a tightly controlled situation, in terms of pitches and innings. That means that the longer he stays in Triple-A, the more potential flexibility the Pirates have with him down the stretch should they need him to pitch in a pennant race without having to shelf him, Strasburg style. You're laughing now, I know, but this is stuff that someone should at least be thinking about at this point in the spring.
If we add all that together, I'd say that there's practically no chance that Cole comes to Pittsburgh before June 1st, even if he flat-out dominates at Indianapolis (given the precarious health of the Pirates' staff and the chance that Cole certainly could go to Indy and flat-out dominate, I won't say that there's no chance at all, but I do feel like it's pretty small). Indy has 59 games in April and May and their season opener is also their home opener, so that means 12 starts for Cole if he pitches every fifth game and eight starts for him if they hold him to once a week to keep a leash on innings. Instinctively that number of starts feels about right. He made 13 starts with Bradenton and 12 starts with Altoona last year. I suspect that the Pirates won't let him pitch every fifth day, though, and that when June 1 rolls around he's somewhere around 8-10 starts instead of 12. As a result it could be closer to July when we see him.
I feel pretty good about that ballpark, though that's partially because I'm pretty optimistic that things will come together quickly for Cole in Triple-A (and that I'm optimistic more out of a need for sanity at this point in the season that anything else). It's certainly possible that he struggles a bit at the beginning of the year and needs more time to work things out. Still, between his talent and the Pirates' lack of pitching depth this year, I'd say that while I wouldn't expect Cole much earlier than June 1st, I also wouldn't expect him much later than the All-Star break.