In one of the most significant trades of the 2017-18 offseason, the Pirates sent right-hander Gerrit Cole to the Astros for a four-player package. The move put an end to nonstop trade rumors centering on Cole, who had been a Pirate since they selected him first overall in the 2011 draft. Cole largely lived up to the billing in Pittsburgh, but with the Pirates being a low-budget team and Scott Boras functioning as the hurler’s agent, the club had little choice but to deal him. Cole was down to his penultimate year of control, and the Pirates knew they weren’t going to be able to prevent him from reaching free agency after 2019.
Cole has excelled with the Astros since the deal went down, though even they haven’t locked him up to an extension. The soon-to-be 29-year-old is likely to reach the open market after the season, when he could be the top player available. In the meantime, Cole could help guide an elite Houston team to a World Series championship. On the other hand, the Pirates haven’t contended since they traded Cole (in fairness, nor did they in his final two seasons in the Steel City). At 27-28, it appears the Buccos are on their way to a fourth consecutive year without a playoff berth. The package they got for Cole hasn’t really helped matters.
Righty Joe Musgrove, arguably the headliner from Pittsburgh’s point of view, came over after a year in which he moved to the Astros’ bullpen and stood out. But the Pirates shifted Musgrove back to the rotation, and aside from a horrendous showing in May, he has resembled a decent big league starter. While Musgrove has given up 27 earned runs on 38 hits in 30 innings this month, his overall numbers as a Pirate are fine. The 26-year-old has given Pittsburgh 30 starts and 178 1/3 frames of 4.29 ERA/3.60 FIP ball with 7.57 K/9, 2.12 BB/9 and a 44.8 percent groundball rate dating back to his arrival.
In the aggregate, Musgrove has been more the solution than the problem for the Pirates. He’s also on a pre-arbitration salary this season and still has three years of arb control thereafter. Realistically, there’s not a lot to complain about with Musgrove, though the same hasn’t been true of the other three players the Pirates got back.
The hope was that big, hard-throwing righty Michael Feliz would emerge as a lights-out member of the Pirates’ bullpen right away. They’re still waiting. Feliz managed a 4.13 FIP and 10.38 K/9 in 47 2/3 innings last season, but he walked more than four batters per nine and limped to a 5.66 ERA. To make matters worse, the 25-year-old has spent most of this season in Triple-A. Across the 12 innings Feliz has logged in the majors in 2019, he has surrendered 11 earned runs on 12 hits and nine walks (with an impressive 16 strikeouts, it should be noted).
Outfielder Jason Martin, who was the Astros’ 15th-ranked prospect at the time of the trade, totaled the first 38 plate appearances of his major league career earlier this season. He didn’t produce much, though, nor has the 23-year-old acquitted himself all that well at the minors’ highest level thus far. Martin got a promotion after crushing Double-A pitching last season, but he’s the owner of a meager .225/.284/.371 line in 338 Triple-A attempts.
That leaves 26-year-old third baseman Colin Moran, who has garnered the most playing time of anyone Pittsburgh got back for Cole. The former top 100 prospect has been just a guy with the Pirates – a league-average hitter whose WAR suggests he’s something between an average player and a replacement-level performer. Over 618 trips to the plate as a Pirate, Moran has hit a respectable but unexciting .274/.335/.414 (102 wRC+) with 17 home runs and 1.1 fWAR.
Including Moran’s contributions, the Pirates have gotten 4.7 fWAR out of the Cole trade so far. Last July, seven months after that deal, the Pirates traded two hyped young players (righty Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows) to Tampa Bay for a potential Cole replacement righty Chris Archer. That transaction has worked out far worse for the Pirates to this point, as Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs recently explained.
The Cole and Archer moves have left the Pirates with a bunch of controllable parts, but nobody from the group looks like much to write home about so far. At the same time, the swaps stripped the organization of a trio of players who have been high-end contributors elsewhere. Two of them, Glasnow and Meadows, are under control for the foreseeable future. These are mistakes a small-budget team can ill afford to make, and they help explain why the Pirates are stuck in neutral.