The Pittsburgh Pirates have always had a reputation for bucking the trend in Major League Baseball of allowing talented, young, high draft picks to reach the big show very quickly. The Pirates continue to utilize every level of their farm system in the development of their young pitchers, a strategy that could have cost several young hurlers dearly. With 2011 first round pick Gerrit Cole, the Pirates obviously have a young pitcher who is ready for the rigors of professional baseball. After starting out his first pro season this year at Bradenton (Florida State League A), it took the Pirates just 67.0 IP to decide that he was ready to be elevated to AA-Altoona. The 21-year old posted a 5-1 record with a 2.55 ERA and 69 K’s in his time with the Marauders.
Now at Altoona, Cole will begin to face talent that is night and day compared to rookie league ball. The Eastern League, of which Altoona is a part, is filled with highly-touted young prospects and players who are virtually one step away from the majors. If he has similar success with the Curve, that would lead us to believe that the possibility is there for him to be moved up to AAA-Indianapolis before the end of summer. That would then make him a legitimate candidate for a September call-up once rosters expand. From UCLA to the Pittsburgh Pirates in one year – not bad, huh? Unfortunately, the Pirates have yet to truly embrace this type of rapid promotion strategy when most of the other teams in baseball are jumping their big-time pitching prospects to the majors with very little in the way of minor league experience.
A few examples of what is occurring around the league include the Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg, Tampa Bay’s David Price, and of course the most recent example – Wasington uber-prospect Bryce Harper. The Pirates have had numerous top draft picks over the 19 years they have been experiencing losing seasons. Names like Bryan Bullington, Bobby Bradley, and even Brad Lincoln come to mind. Bradley spent so much time in the minors that he ended up hurt and thus ended his professional career before it could get started. Even 3B Pedro Alvarez spent a solid year and the half in the low minors before his 2010 call-up. The Pirates have always tended to be cautious with their young talent, and over the years it may have cost them.
What happens with Gerrit Cole could give us all a solid understanding of the “new” policies in place for prospect handling in the Pirates organization. If Cole dominates at the next two levels, will they allow him the chance to pitch in the big leagues in September? The Pirates are looking as if they may be in contention for a division title or at least a Wild Card slot this season, and the emergence of a power pitcher like Cole – ready for the majors – would be a huge boost to this team in the late part of the season. Whether or not he gets that chance is up to the Pirates. There are currently four top picks from the 2010 Draft that are helping at the Major League level – SP Chris Sale of the White Sox, SP Drew Pomeranz of the Rockies, OF Bryce Harper, and C Yasmani Grandal of the Padres. Two of those players are already in their second major league organization since being drafted (Grandal was taken by Cincinnati then traded to San Diego in the Mat Latos deal, Pomeranz was selected by Cleveland then shipped to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal in Aug. 2011), which makes their quick path to the major leagues even more of a story.
From the 2011 Draft Class, there is a good chance baseball fans will be seeing many of the players taken after Gerrit Cole in the big leagues this summer. Mariners pitcher Danny Hultzen is dominating at AA, Diamondbacks pitcher Trevor Bauer is already at AAA and pitching well with a call-up almost imminent, and both of them will be up soon. Cole is arguably a better talent than either of them, and realistically Pirates fans can assume that he will have the same type of success at Altoona and Indianapolis that he has had in Bradenton. The main worry about Cole are his mechanics, as he throws very hard and power pitchers are always considered to be injury risks once they get up over 200+ IP in the minors. Getting Cole to Pittsburgh (and hopefully, Jameson Taillon not too far behind) will signal the next step in the process of making the Pittsburgh Pirates a realistic World Series contender.
Will PNC Park get a chance to watch Gerrit Cole pitch in 2012? We can only hope that the Pirates are seriously considering the possibility.
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