Expectations are, at times, impossible to live up to as a player. None moreso than when a player is drafted 1st overall, as was the case with Gerrit Cole. Most fans expect a player drafted 1st to be a perennial MVP candidate or Cy Young finalist. In actuality, though, it just means that player has a better than average chance of being a valuable contributor. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Pirates were in a position to draft #1 in the 2011 Draft, thanks to the animatronic escapee from the Hall of Presidents, re-named ‘John Russell’, leading the Pirates to a 57-105 record. This was on the heels of drafting #2 in 2008 (Pedro Alvarez), #4 in 2009 (Tony Sanchez), and #2 in 2010 (Jameson Taillon), during the Neal Huntington era. The problem is that unlike in 2009 and 2010, with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, there was no clear cut #1 pick to take. (I would also contend that Buster Posey was a clear cut #1 in 2008 at the time, but he ended up going #5 to the Giants).
Besides Cole, Trevor Bauer (his teammate at UCLA), high schooler Dylan Bundy, and UVA pitcher Danny Hultzen were all considered top arms to take in the 1-1 spot. There was an incredible amount of hype around Anthony Rendon of Rice University, but his injury history scared some teams off.
Of this group, Cole had the best blend of present-day size (6′-4″), present-day stuff (high 90’s fastball, slider, curve), and future projection. It wasn’t a “safe” pick, but rather it was the correct pick based on a wide combination of variables. In reality, the most successful pick from the 1st round of the 2011 draft turned out to be the recently-departed Jose Fernandez, who amazingly went 14th to the Marlins, showing the roulette wheel nature of drafting baseball players.
Cole’s Pirate career to this point can be labelled as “pretty good, flashes of greatness”. After the Pirates gamed the system in 2013 for Super Two purposes, Cole exploded onto the scene in June 2013 for the run-up to their first playoff appearance since 1992. Cole was dominant down the stretch in September, putting up a 1.69 ERA/1.55 ERA in 32 innings, with 10 BB against 39 K’s.
Cole has developed a reputation, somewhat earned and somewhat not, of not being able to pitch in big games. But many fans must be conveniently forgetting his strong Game 2 winning performance in the NLDS against the Cardinals when he went 6 innings, allowing just 2 hits and 1 walk, while striking out 5. He followed that up in the infamous Game 5 against the Cardinals when he was selected over A.J. Burnett (who had a bugaboo about pitching in St. Louis, yet threw a huge fit anyway) and kept them in the game with 5 innings of 3 hit ball, yielding 2 runs in a game the Pirates eventually lost 6-1.
Expectations were naturally high for both Cole and the Pirates heading into 2014, as he appeared ready to ascend to full acehood. But in a recurring theme for his tenure, Cole fought through some shoulder troubles, but was excellent in his limited 138 innings of work…but not excellent enough.
Moving into 2015, I wrote about how I was waiting for Gerrit Cole to break out and go full Cy Young treatment. If he did, I felt that Cole’s success would portend great success for the Pirates. Well, that happened for both parties. Cole put down a legitimate #1 season (19-8, 2.60 ERA/2.66 FIP, 5.4 WAR) and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting. There’s no shame in that placement, either, when you see the seasons put up by Arrieta/Greinke/Kershaw you realize that they were otherworldly that year. Cole’s 2015 season would have been enough to win virtually any other year, including this past season in the NL. Cole was great, the Pirates won 98, but still got stuck in the Wild Card game and…well…you know.
This past season is still fresh in everyone’s mind, so I don’t need to elaborate too much about how disappointing it was for both Cole and the Pirates. Cole was on the DL three separate times with different injuries, including elbow inflammation, and the Pirates were a grind of metal on metal, finishing with just 78 wins.
So here we are at the midpoint of Cole’s Pirate tenure. I say that since he’s entering the first of three arbitration years, after having three minimum salary years. It’s technically not the midpoint for a couple of reasons, though. First, there’s the “bonus” time of 2013 after the Pirates held him down enough to gain both a bonus 4 months of service, plus avoid Super Two arbitration. Second, it’s hard to envision Cole staying here for his full 3rd year of arbitration.
No, it’s not because the Pirates are cheap. Come on. Give it a rest for just one minute. It’s because Cole’s agent is Scott Boras and Scott Boras is not in the business of giving team-friendly extensions that buy out free agent years for his clients. So the Pirates aren’t going to risk just losing him for nothing, resulting in a trade either pre-2019 or during the 2019 season.
For some members of the Pirates’ fanbase, that can’t come soon enough. They don’t like his attitude or his aforementioned troubles, legit or not, during key games in the season. I’ve never understood this, why people want to shunt off a player capable of being a legitimate #1. We’ve seen it. Just two seasons ago! Yes, his durability has to improve, but it sure seems like he’s got a “good odd year, bad even year” thing going on and we’re in luck — 2017 is an odd year.
The general public is down on the Pirates heading into this year, all because they had the audacity to suck for one year. There can be no backsliding among a fanbase, apparently, with memories still fresh of 20 losing years. I would have thought that three postseason appearances in a row would have cauterized those wounds, but I guess not. Now I hear that they can’t get out of the Wild Card game (even though they did in 2013 and gave the Cards everything they could handle in the NLDS).
It’s time to appreciate Cole a little bit more. He won’t be here for more than two seasons, most likely. Aces don’t grow on trees.