Does Gerrit Cole Belong on the Pittsburgh Pirates' Opening Day Roster?
The short answer is no.
COMMENTARY | Pittsburgh Pirates former No. 1 draft pick Gerrit Cole didn't hide his emotions March 18 after being reassigned out of spring camp. Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Cole argued that he pitched well enough in spring training to warrant a spot in the rotation when camp breaks...Cole's minor-league service record, albeit rather limited, seems to back up his claim. He posted a 2.55 ERA in 67 innings pitched for High-Bradenton and a 2.90 ERA in 59 innings for Double-A Altoona. He struck out seven batters in his only appearance in Triple-A Indianapolis.
I don't know Gerrit Cole personally, but I don't have any reason to believe he's a moron. He's fully aware of how service clocks and baseball's arbitration process work. He knows that barring injury, he'll pitch in the Majors this season, and he probably knows that will happen before July. Is he allowed to be miffed? Sure, whatever. But he knows full well he's going to be a big-league pitcher this year, and he knew he wasn't going to make the team, even if he threw 75 Grapefruit League no-hitters. He's the wealthiest man in the Pirates' minor league system. He needs to shut up, go to Indianapolis for two months, and carry on with the business of dominating minor league hitters.
The star prospect had some choice words for management, hinting that his demotion had more to do with finances and contract issues than his pitching.
He might have a point:
By delaying his major-league debut, management can postpone his free agency by one year if Cole is kept in the minors long enough. That move could also set back Cole's arbitration eligibility in future years.
Here's the simple version of how this works: when a player reaches the Majors for the first time, it starts what the collective bargaining agreement calls a service clock. For the first three years of a player's big-league career, the team controls his salary, and is obligated to pay him nothing more than the league minimum -- a paltry $410,000. For the three years a player is cost-controlled, his team is obligated to pay him no more than 80 percent of his previous year's salary.
After three years of service time, the player becomes arbitration-eligible. When this happens, the team retains the rights to the player's services if it chooses to do so, but his salary is determined through arbitration. After the off-season begins, the team sets a figure, the player sets a figure, and a hearing is scheduled for some point in February. The club and the player are free to negotiate with each other up to the point of the hearing. More often than not, teams avoid arbitration by agreeing to contracts in advance. After three years of arbitration eligibility, the player is allowed to become a free agent.
By waiting until about mid-June to bring Cole to the majors, the Pirates can delay the start of his service clock to the point where they'd retain his rights not through 2018, but 2019. For a more detailed version of how this works, check out the Baseball Prospectus Transaction Glossary. It's unnecessarily complex and stupid.
Regardless of the true motives behind Cole's departure from spring camp, should the young pitcher have voiced his displeasure with management in such a public way?
It doesn't really matter. The guy didn't throw a tantrum. He didn't knock over a liquor store.
And, more important, does he actually belong on the Pirates' opening day roster?
No. This team is going to be bad. It's going to hurt -- probably as much as it hurt last year. These guys are gunning for 82 wins and that's all. Any reasonable person concerned about the long-term health of this franchise should 1) Want to see Neal Huntington fired, and 2) acknowledge that the idea of keeping Gerrit Cole an extra year is an unassailably good idea -- especially since his agent's trademark is never letting clients sign long-term deals before testing the free agent market.
Cole pitched 132 innings of minor-league ball in his first year as a professional. The 22-year-old has also pitched to a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings of spring ball, striking out seven batters in the process.
These facts, despite their being facts, have no bearing on the question of whether or not Gerrit Cole belongs on the Opening Day roster. It's not something that should be open to debate. Even if the team was on the cusp of contending, keeping Cole in Triple-A until mid-June to retain his services for an extra year would be the right move. If a less prescient question pertaining to this club exists, I can't think of one.
Where does he rank currently in his career progression when compared to other highly regarded prospects?
Hey, look! An even less prescient question!
Let's first take a look at Randy Johnson...
Fuck. The. Heck. ?.
The Big Unit made his big-league debut for the Montreal Expos in 1988 at the age of 25 after toiling for several seasons in the minors. He pitched 372 innings from 1986 to 1988 before ascending to the majors and embarking on a Hall of Fame-caliber career. He threw two no-hitters and a perfect game during a 22-year career.
Randy Johnson was 6-feet-10 and left-handed. Gerrit Cole is 6-feet-4 and right-handed. Johnson spent three years in the minors working on control problems after he was drafted out of college. The odds of anyone pitching 22 years in the Majors are astronomically small, let alone someone starting in the Majors at age 25. There is no less germane a comparison to Gerrit Cole than Randy Johnson.
Then there's Nolan Ryan, who threw 78 innings in the minors in 1965 and 202 innings in 1966 before making his major-league debut at age 19.
You've got to be kidding me.
There's also Roger Clemens, who pitched 127 2/3 innings in the minors before making his debut in 1984 at the age of 21. The Rocket spent his entire first season in the minors and also the first month of his second season, much like Cole now.
Here is a series of statements equally pertinent to Gerrit Cole as the above:
Jim Abbott went right from college to the Olympic team to the Majors. Walter Johnson has a high school named for him in Bethesda, Md. Albert Einstein didn't become a U.S. citizen until he was 60 years old. Salman Rushdie attended King's College, University of Cambridge. Lew Alcindor played collegiate sports at UCLA and later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. By the time Mozart was Greg Maddux's current age, he had been dead for 11 years.
Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg threw only 55 innings in the minors before making his debut in 2010 at the age of 21.
To compare Gerrit Cole to any of these people is perverse. The first three of these guys are among the top 10 pitchers in the history of baseball. The fourth is the single most prophetic, anticipated player the game has seen since the Majors started allowing people who weren't white to play.
It wasn't long after he tore a ligament in his arm and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed on Christmas Day in 1989, following a hasty, two-hour trial. What, for fuck's sake, are you trying to say?
Should Cole be angry?
No. Who cares? It doesn't matter.
The highly touted prospect clearly thinks he's ready for major-league action. And maybe he is. But there is a long and storied list of pitchers who've come before him, pitchers who are arguably more talented and pitchers who spent more service time in the minors than Cole has now.
Many, many pitchers have pitched in the major leagues up to this point right now where we are in time. From where I'm standing, at this juncture, there have been a great many pitchers in professional baseball. Some of them have been good. Some of them have not been good. Some have been really good. Others have been flat-out terrible. Some of them pitched before the minor leagues existed. Others did not. I'm waiting for some kind of point to be made here.
Maybe the Pirates' decision comes down to finances. Regardless, waiting a month or two for a promotion should have no impact on Cole's chances of having a lengthy and productive career.
So your position is that it might not matter that Gerrit Cole won't be on the Opening Day roster, but you're not sure?
But that doesn't mean Cole stepped out of line in voicing his displeasure. His words show a fire and desire to contribute now to the major-league team, not in a month or later this season. That confidence can go a long way during the ups and downs of a long, arduous major-league season.
Gerrit Cole doesn't just have fire. Gerrit Cole doesn't just have desire. Gerrit Cole has fire and desire. If he were an 1840s army general, his nickname would be "Ol' Fire & Desire."
Cole's public frustration with management should be a moot point in several months when he finally gets that call to pack his bags and head for Pittsburgh. It's a call that is coming.
BREAKING NEWS: Gerrit Cole will probably pitch for the Pirates this season. He's upset that he's not going to be there in April, but that's okay. He'll be there soon. EVERYBODY CALM THE FUCK DOWN.
If that's the point of this column, I'm glad it only took 675 words to get there.