What do you get for a team that has everything? If you’re Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who in the last six months has already added a rejuvenated Justin Verlander and won a World Series, the answer, apparently, is another pitcher with ace potential.
On Saturday, Houston and Pittsburgh agreed to a trade that will send Pirates starter Gerrit Cole to the defending champs, with a helping of quad-A-level talent returning to Pittsburgh. With every starter who won them the title returning in 2018, the Astros didn’t need another pitcher; still, in an offseason in which their prime competitors have added myriad talent, they’ve responded in force.
A division rival acquires Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, and Zack Cozart and extends Justin Upton? Last season’s ALCS foe trades for Giancarlo Stanton? Well Houston, we have a solution, in the form of another reliable starter who can get those batters out. The Astros’ lineup is already the most potent in the majors, and a rotation of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Cole, Lance McCullers, and World Series hero Charlie Morton is the best at least in the American League, if not all of baseball.
Cole would help keep the Astros ahead of the AL pack regardless of what Houston surrendered in return. As is, with likely long-term relievers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, corner infielder Colin Moran, and fringe outfield prospect Jason Martin leaving the Astros’ system, Luhnow has completed the steal of the offseason.
In recent seasons, several versions of Cole have manifested on the Pirates’ mound. In 2015, the former no. 1 pick pitched like one, and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting after recording a 2.60 ERA and striking out nearly a batter per inning. In 2017, though, his ERA ballooned—to 4.26—along with his home run rate, with 15.9 percent of fly balls he allowed clearing the fence (compared to a pre-2017 rate of just 7.6 percent).
Split the difference between those two years—as he did, for instance, in 2016—and you find a profile of one of the 30 best starters in baseball, with the potential for a superior ranking. Over the last three seasons combined, Cole ranked 16th in FanGraphs’ version of WAR and 27th in Baseball-Reference’s, and he projects as a top-20 pitcher next year.
The best version of Cole amasses hearty, if not obscene, K totals, limits walks, and keeps the ball in the park; the worst version, as last year suggests, does all of those things except avoid homers. That’s an important skill, of course, especially in a park like Houston’s, but there’s nothing in Cole’s profile to suggest that last season’s struggles were more signal than noise. In his career before 2017, he had allowed the fifth-lowest HR/FB rate among 175 qualified starters, and even in a down year, he still eclipsed 200 innings and was worth about three wins above replacement.
Given that the Astros’ rotation was already packed with talent, Cole is immediately the best no. 3 starter in the American League, and he could blossom even more in Houston. As FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik noted last week, many of Cole’s struggles last season stemmed from an inconsistently effective—albeit still blazing—fastball, but Houston’s pitchers threw the second-lowest proportion of heaters in the majors last season.
Also, unlike Cole, who has thrown more than 200 innings in two of the last three years, Houston’s pitchers beyond Verlander are veterans of the disabled list; no Astro threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year, and the leader in innings pitched—Mike Fiers—was a back-end option who didn’t even make the playoff roster. McCullers, Morton, and even Keuchel—who’s missed at least a month in each of the last two seasons—are noted injury risks; even if the whole group is healthy all at once, it just provides manager A.J. Hinch with more bullpen flexibility, as Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh could shuffle to swingman roles.
And in return for strengthening their run-prevention unit to such an extent, Houston essentially lost no production from its title-winning roster last year. Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran combined for less than two WAR last season, with most of that total coming from Musgrove’s stint in relief—a void that Peacock, for instance, could fill ably in 2018. Neither he nor Feliz has yet proven himself a viable long-term starter, and Moran is a decent if uninspiring third-base option who would never see playing time in Houston with Alex Bregman blocking his way. Neither Moran nor Martin—a 22-year-old outfielder who went unclaimed in last month’s Rule 5 draft—ranks as one of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects.
It’s a puzzling return for Pittsburgh, which was rumored to be asking for the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres—MLB.com’s no. 2 prospect, behind only Shohei Ohtani—in trade discussions with New York, and which exchanged its most valuable trade asset for players who might never become average regulars, let alone All-Stars. (As Ken Rosenthal noted, even the Yankees’ secondary prospects, like outfielder Clint Frazier, would have represented a better return.) But the Pirates’ loss is Houston’s gain: The Astros avoided the “World Series winner’s curse,” as Ben Lindbergh once termed it. Typically, titlists stand pat in the winter after their victory, which dooms them to suffer the vagaries of regression with few paths to compensate with improvement elsewhere on the roster.
The Astros are still likely to regress compared to last season, when even the likes of Marwin González enjoyed a season-long hot stretch; they could still suffer injuries; they could still face a Cubs-esque championship hangover effect. But active roster improvements could remedy those adverse effects, and it’s hard to imagine a more secure step than adding a possible ace for cheap.