-- Now that the Gerrit Cole trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Houston Astros finally happened, my initial reaction: Great job, Jeff Luhnow. The Astros dealt from their deep reservoir of talent to acquire a starting pitcher with All-Star upside without giving up any players who project as major contributors to the 2018 team.
That doesn't necessarily mean this will end up as a huge win, nor does it mean that the Pittsburgh Pirates didn't get enough in return. For those -- especially Pirates fans -- who are disappointed in the return, receiving either Forrest Whitley or Kyle Tucker as the centerpiece of the trade was never going to happen. Those are arguably two of the top 10 or 15 prospects in the game and the Astros weren't to give up one of them for two years of Cole.
Plus, the Pirates did their due diligence. This was what they viewed to be the best offer as they received three players who will have major league careers in Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran and Michael Feliz, plus prospect Jason Martin. Maybe it feels a little light, but the Pirates went with depth and certainty over risky potential, and it seems pretty obvious that nobody really viewed Cole as an ace.
Why the Astros made the deal: In his four-plus seasons with the Pirates, Cole -- the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 -- has had just one dominant season, back in 2015 when he won 19 games with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. He's battled a couple nagging injuries, although was healthy in 2017 when he posted a 4.26 ERA over 33 starts and 203 innings. Over the past two seasons, he ranks 48th out of 92 pitchers with at least 250 innings in ERA, sandwiched alongside Jeff Samardzija and Sean Manaea. Despite an average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph in 2017 -- fourth-best among starting pitchers -- his strikeout rate over those two seasons is 38th out of those 92 pitchers.
The Astros will look to unlock that talent. The biggest culprit compared to his 2015 breakout was the increase in home runs: 11 to 31. Fix that, and the ERA will go way down. He'll receive all the benefits of working with a smart organization -- although the Pirates are also one of the best in analytics -- plus he'll have run support, a shot at postseason glory and the opportunity to use Justin Verlander as a mentor. He has two seasons before free agency, where he can receive a nine-figure contract heading into 2020 if everything clicks in Houston.
The Astros now have a rotation that rivals the Indians and Nationals for best in the game, lining up Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Cole, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton, with Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh in deep reserve. The Indians and Nationals can maybe match the top five, but nobody can match that depth.
In many ways, the best part about this deal for the Astros is they acquired a big rotation piece without having to pay the $100-plus million needed to sign Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. With Cole, they have insurance when Keuchel and Morton hit free agency after the season. They also kept Whitley and Tucker, which leaves open this intriguing possibility as they continue to build a potential super team: They could make one of those two guys the centerpiece for a Christian Yelich trade with the Marlins. Stew on that idea, American League rivals.
Astros grade: A
? Why the Pirates made the deal: The Astros are so deep that the best guy they gave up in the deal was Musgrove, a former starter who excelled when moved to the bullpen last year. He had a 6.12 ERA in 15 starts, but a 1.44 ERA over 31 relief innings, where he fanned 31 and walked just five. His velocity clicked up a couple mph out of the pen and he eliminated the home run issues that plagued him as a starter. At a minimum, the Pirates probably have a good reliever, but you don't want to trade Cole for a nice bullpen part. Pittsburgh will commit to giving Musgrove another chance at starting.
Moran is a third baseman with some prospect pedigree, the sixth pick in 2013 by the Marlins out of North Carolina. The Marlins quickly gave up on him and the Astros acquired Moran, Jake Marisnick and Francis Martes in a steal of a deal for Jarred Cosart and Enrique Hernandez. Moran struggled in the minors until a repeat performance in Triple-A in 2017 and was passed by Alex Bregman as the team's third baseman of the future (actually, he's also been passed by J.D. Davis on the depth chart at third base). There was no room for him in Houston.
Can Moran hit in the majors? After posting a weak .697 OPS at Fresno in 2016, Moran hit .308/.373/.543 there in 79 games in 2017. Like much of the PCL, Fresno is a nice place to hit and you always have to be a little skeptical about a prospect repeating the same level. Moran will be 25, so it's time to see if he can hit. I'd project Moran as a second-division starter, but there's the chance he won't hit for enough power to play a corner infield slot.
In order to maximize the potential return of the trade, the Pirates need to start Musgrove and employ Moran at third base, which means a possible trade for David Freese. (GM Neal Huntington had said in December that Jung Ho Kang, still caught up in visa issues, was unlikely to return to Pittsburgh for 2018.)
Feliz is a wild card. He's a giant, hard-throwing right-hander who posted an ugly 5.63 ERA in 48 bullpen innings in 2017. There's some upside here as he's fanned 165 in 113 innings in two seasons of relief. He's also surrendered 18 home runs, however, and been more hittable than you'd expect given that strikeout rate. You know the story: He needs better command and more consistency with his slider.
Martin has been one of the youngest players at his level in the minors the past two seasons, an outfielder hit .278/.332/.487 with 18 home runs and 16 steals between High-A and Double-A, not turning 22 until September. He's interesting, but may project as a fourth outfielder, lacking the range to stick in center, but also lacking the arm strength you want in right.
Is it an underwhelming return? I'm not high on Moran, but maybe 2017 was a turning point. Musgrove and Feliz could certainly turn into something if you want to extend the maximum benefit of the doubt to Ray Searage. You also get a combined 21 years of team control with the four players, so even if you hit semi-big on one guy and moderately OK on two of the other three, the Pirates will have done OK. You can maybe beat the Pirates for not trading Cole last offseason, but he needed to prove he was healthy and there was no way to expect his home run rate to turn crazy.
Pirates grade: B-