Cole and Cutch: Buy or Sell?
The Pittsburgh Pirates enter June’s third week in fourth place in the NL Central; six games back of division leader Milwaukee and 12.0 games back of Arizona and Los Angeles for Wild Card spots. The Pirates have experienced a unique roller coaster ride as we head into the thick of the summer, but the club still finds itself in a unique position.
The Pirates also are preparing to face difficult contract situations once the 2017 season concludes. How some of those scenarios play out can be contingent on where the team finishes at the end of the season. Some contract decisions include Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, who are the first two dominoes that should be tipped, one way or another.
A Grand Domino Effect
Cole has two remaining years of arbitration before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2020. McCutchen is up for a $14.5 million club option in 2018, and the Pirates have been rumored since the last out of the 2016 World Series to want to part ways with him. The fact of the matter at the time was his production was not worth the money, and they would allow him to test free agency following 2017. So why not get something for him, while they can?
Entering Monday’s action, Cutch was slashing .257/.332/.466 with 12 home runs, 37 RBI, and six stolen bases. These numbers are comparable to his 2016 splits, where he slashed .256/.336/.430… with six stolen bases. He’s on pace to hit more home runs and drive in more runs in 2017, but would that production still be worth the $14.5 million with respect to the current outfield free agent market?
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Cole entered Monday’s start with a 4-6 record and a 4.54 ERA in 83.1 innings. While he would likely command less money due to arbitration, the organization has still tested the trade market and sought interest in Cole over the offseason.
If or when, one or both of these two are moved, a clear vision of what direction this front office wants to go will be revealed. Would it be practical to pay a 31-year old outfielder that amount of money for that production, or should the organization let Cutch test his market value? Would it be practical to keep Cole for another arbitration-eligible year and let the rest play out in 2018? Should a move be made at this year’s trade deadline?
Buy or Sell?
The Pirates absolutely need to sell on Andrew McCutchen. Look at it this way: What other choice makes sense? The club already has Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte locked in through at least 2021, top prospect Austin Meadows is very close to being MLB ready, and McCutchen’s prime years appear to be over given his consistent decline in numbers since the start of 2016. The Pirates have three solid outfielders to bank on, and they have a fourth and fifth Big League piece to build off of in Josh Bell and Adam Frazier, who would be relatively cheap for the club to retain. Also, Ke’Bryan Hayes in currently in High-A, and he can play some outfield.
Moving Gerrit Cole does not make sense. It may not in a grand sense, but it does in comparison of moving him versus moving McCutchen. The Pirates absolutely should buy into a pitcher who has anchored a staff since their turnaround 2013 season. Cole is not far removed from his stellar 2015 campaign where he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, and he is currently in his age 26 season. The odds of a starting pitcher, while working with the best pitching coach in baseball in Ray Searage, turning his misfortunes around are greater than a 31-year old outfielder doing so while in a looming, bad log jamming situation.
Retaining Cole would keep consistency within the rotation, and in a young rotation at that. Cole (26) is the second oldest starter in the rotation (Ivan Nova, 30) and with Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow developing behind him, the Pirates could keep four consistent starters around for some time while adding top pitching prospect Mitch Keller to the ledger along the road.
Next: Pirates Split Series With Brewers
Time will Tell
I understand all of this is being said in mid-June, and the Pirates are still (fortunately) within striking distance of the NL Central leading Brewers, but this was all written while looking past 2017.
For now, there is not correct or incorrect move. As clichéd as it sounds, only time can tell if the correct move or moves is/is not, are/are not made. But speculation alone should not fear what is in store for the Pirates. The counterargument to keeping Cole is that their pitching depth does run young, and you can build off Taillon and Glasnow, but there is uncertainty beyond Kuhl as a likely third starter without Cole or Nova in the picture. Also, the Pirates organization has said they plan to keep Cole for this reason: Having an experienced veteran who has yet to enter his prime makes sense, and hoping that he and Ray Searage can turn around recent misfortunes also makes sense. Keeping a 30-year old outfielder who does not appear to be returning to former-MVP form and whom will be entering a positional logjam within time does not make sense.
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Rum Bunter on the FanSided family of networks. Follow him on Twitter @cdcrisan.