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Friday December 14 2018
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For the Pirates, Cole's exit was just a matter of time

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The Cole Train has left the station. After an offseason of speculation and trade rumors, the Pirates finally traded their ace to the Houston Astros Saturday night, receiving right-handers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin in return.

Unlike most of the trade rumors centering around Gerrit Cole this offseason, this deal did not involve top of the line minor league talent, but rather major league ready players. Musgrove and Feliz have each spent the last two seasons in the majors. Moran had a cup of coffee in the show last season and appears to be major league ready. The three of them should have inside tracks to starting the year in the majors in 2018.

This seems to indicate this trade is part of a retool, not a rebuild, and that GM Neal Huntington is still hopeful the team can compete in 2018. It may not be an overwhelming return at first glance, but it looks like they are addressing some immediate needs.

The Pirates traded for three underachieving major leaguers. How close are these reclamation projects to reaching their potential?

Let’s start with Feliz. He finished 2017 with a 5.63 ERA and 1.563 WHIP over 46 appearances, but he also averaged 13.13 strikeouts per nine innings. It was the second straight year he averaged at least 13 K/9.

The fastball-slider reliever averaged 96.3 MPH and a spin rate of 2297 RPM last year, according to Baseball Savant, which are both above the league average, but it comes at a catch. According to Statcast, a reliever with a fastball that averages a similar speed a spin rate should expect to get a whiff roughly 9-10% of the time. Feliz got a whiff on 12.4% of his four-seamers last year. If that falls to where the league average should be, it could be trouble.

Feliz had more than his share of bad luck in 2017, with batters recording a .381 average on batted balls in play (the league average hovers around .300). Between that and his below league average 69% left on base average, he could save some points off his ERA by just falling back to the league average. The ERA estimator SIERA projected him to have a 3.19 ERA in 2017 and a 2.45 in 2016.

Feliz is 24 and has four years of team control remaining.  

Cole is effectively taking Musgrove’s spot in Houston’s rotation. The 25 year old went 7-8 with a 4.77 ERA over 38 appearances in 2017, 15 of which were starts.

Musgrove likely will compete for the number five spot in the rotation this spring with Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault, but he may be better suited in the bullpen. He had a 6.12 ERA and batters recorded a .372 wOBA against him in his 78 innings as a starter last year. In 31.1 innings as a reliever, those numbers drop to a 1.44 ERA and a .242 wOBA.

Part of the reason why Musgrove has more success out of the bullpen is his unusual “one-seam” sinker. Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris wrote about his unique grip in 2016 and how it creates “downward movement without fade.” (You can read the piece here: https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/joe-musgroves-weird-one-seam-sinker/).

He also has a hard to handle slider (batters hit just .185 against it with a .261 slugging percentage, according to Baseball Savant), but his changeup and curveball were hit hard despite getting a fair amount of whiffs. If he can develop one of them into a true third pitch, he can profile as a starter. If not, he is an intriguing bullpen arm.

Musgrove has five years of team control remaining, the first two being pre-arb.

It looked like Moran finally had a chance to prove his major league worth in July when Carlos Correa was placed on the disabled-list, but he was sidelined in just his second start when a foul ball hit him in the face, forcing him to receive surgery for a facial fracture.

Even though he was sidelined for two months of the season, 2017 seemed to be the breakout campaign for the former No. 6 overall pick, hitting 18 home run with a .916 OPS in 338 AAA plate appearances.

Part of that success comes from changing his swing. Crawfishboxes.com ran a story in May on his tweaks, which include raising his hands and abandoning an open stance. (You can read the story here:https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2017/5/22/15675026/colin-moran-showing-improvement-in-triple-a). He seems to have bought into the flyball revolution, and the results showed, raising his flyball rate nearly 10 points to 40.2% and recording line drives at a 26% clip. For a team desperate for power hitters, he could be one.

Moran swings left-handed and ate righties alive last year (.974 OPS), but had some troubles with southpaws (.771 OPS). The Pirates were looking for a platoon mate or an everyday replacement for David Freese, who had an .839 OPS against lefties but struggled against righties. Moran should have a chance to earn that spot, competing with Sean Rodriguez and Max Moroff.

Moran was the Astros’ No. 9 prospect, according to Baseball America. He is 25 and has six years of team control.

The final player is Martin. He was one of the most popular names thrown around before the Rule 5 draft, but he ultimately stayed with Houston. He will have a season in the Pirates’ farm system before they have to place him on the 40-man roster or expose him to the Rule 5 draft.

He has taken a while to develop, but he finally reached AA last summer and raked once he got there, hitting 11 home runs with an .802 OPS in 320 plate appearances. His hit tool is apparent, but he is likely going to have to switch to a corner outfield spot if he wants to sniff the majors.

There is no big name in this Cole trade. The Pirates are taking four lottery tickets rather than holding out that they could score a blue chip prospect from another team.

While that can be disappointing from a hype standpoint, Cole’s last two years did not justify top of the line talent. As sobering as this is, this might have been the best they could get.

We’ve seen Huntington swing a similar trade in 2012 when he landed Mark Melancon for Joel Hanrahan and then again in 2016 when he flipped Melancon for Felipe Rivero. It didn’t work when he traded for Drew Hutchison or Jason Rogers. It’s a mixed bag, but he has had far more hits than misses when identifying underachievers.

If two or three of these guys are hits, he may have just put the Pirates back into playoff contention. Either way, they may have reached the end of the line with Cole anyway.

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