Nothing like pre-writing an article expecting nothing major to happen at the trade deadline only to have Chris Archer happen. Before I even get started, I want to clarify my headline. This piece is not a lamentation of the Gerrit Cole trade, but on the surface it makes less sense now that the Archer will wear black and yellow. If the Pirates are willing to buy a comparable player to Cole why trade him in the first place?
At the moment, the Astros are getting a season from Gerrit Cole above his average as a Pirate. He might even be heading to his most productive all around. He’s posted a 2.55/2.85/3.04 triple slash and has struck out more than three extra batters per nine innings than in any of his other five previous major league campaigns. Provided he stays healthy, he could surpass his career high of 208 innings pitched in a season. He’ll certainly pitch in the postseason to add to that total. Cole has produced pure star power in 2018. However, that’s not even the Cole I would expect to have if he were still in Pittsburgh.
Chris Archer is having something of a down year. Strikeouts are down. Innings are down. fWAR is down. ERA is up slightly. His peripherals and a move to the NL portends improvements.
The Pirates pitching hasn’t been good enough in 2018 without Cole. The bats have been fine, but the pitching staff has surrendered the 5th most runs in the NL. I’ve often asserted that run prevention separates the playoff teams from the losers in the NL and I plan to update this piece soon. More often than not, the teams playing in October are among those teams who yield the five fewest runs. While the overall team defense certainly hasn’t helped and the bullpen gets more than its share of the blame, the starters have had the 3rd most tallies charged against them in the NL.
There is one notable oddity for me. Every single one of the pitchers on the staff deserves a major league job. One would think on a staff that ineffective someone would have to stink the joint up every fifth day, but Pittsburgh doesn’t have that. The issue is they had a number of pitchers pitching up to their slot in the rotation.
Jameson Taillon is very good, especially considering the adversity he has dealt with over the past three seasons. At the moment, he fills in as the staff ace, but really, he’s not a number one. He’s a number two in a passable rotation and a three in an elite. No one else on the team even has put in middle of the rotation caliber performance, but rather varying degrees of a number four starter.
Joe Musgrove, one of the pieces acquired in the Cole trade has come the closest to exceeding that fourth starter performance. After his hard luck loss to the Mets on July 29th, his ERA came in at a cool 3.63, but his xFIP of 4.36 suggests he likely won’t continue to perform at that level.
Trevor Williams also has ERA/xFIP disparity, but at the very least he has shown the ability to eat a lot of innings. There is value to that even if his earned runs were closer to the 4.82 of his current xFIP.
Nick Kingham has been the epitome of inconsistent and he’s particularly struggled to keep the ball in the park at times as has Ivan Nova. Still both belong in a major rotation. They even have decent depth behind the top five with their 6th-8th starters having the potential to upgrade a number of teams fifth and maybe even fourth spot. Chad Kuhl would also match that solid four description.
To say what I’ve said in the preceding paragraphs a more concise way, the Pirates have starters slotted above their abilities one through three in the rotation, an adequate four, and an above average five and depth. Collectively, they aren’t good enough.
Without a dumpster fire at the fifth spot in the rotation, the Pirates couldn’t go out and get an easy upgrade at the back end they’ve gotten in the past with J.A. Happ and Ivan Nova. Kevin Gausman’s name popped up on my Twitter feed a number of times when I wrote this piece. He would have improved the rotation, but he would’ve slotted in somewhere after Taillon, leaving the glaring lack of an ace Fixing the biggest problem at the front end didn’t seem so simple or likely. The Pirates needed to get someone like Archer and pay the according price. Archer replaces Cole as top of the rotation talent who hasn’t always produced top of the rotation results. He fills a massive void the Pirates created for themselves and he fills it for longer. He’s not elite in his role, but he certainly is passable.
But what changed for the Pirates to go from thinking they need to sell Cole before the season and to moving for Archer at the deadline? This coming only a couple of weeks after I wrote the Pirates should sell whatever piece comes at a decent market return. For one, the team has surged in July. It probably won’t be enough to get much more than a worse draft pick and it likely won’t be sustainable for the rest of the season. However, there are a few positives that the team could take into 2019.
The inconsistent Gregory Polanco’s adjustments at the plate have him sustaining productivity for more than a month. I’m sure he’ll have hiccups, but he hasn’t had a two month stretch like this since the first two months of 2016. Jung Ho Kang looked like he’d remain in immigration limbo for the rest of his playing days. Having him back potentially changes the outlook for the Pirates in 2019 even it’s proving a long road back.
With a number of fringe contenders like the Nationals and Cardinals deciding to entertain offers at the deadline instead of jumping into the trade wars, I think the market favored buyers as much as it has on non waiver trade deadline day since the wild card playoff came about and maybe even more than the 2017 offseason. The Pirates took advantage of that.
I’ve read complaints on Twitter about the packages for Cole and Archer being the same or Archer return being slightly higher. I’d argue that Archer had considerably higher trade value at the time of the deal, and I’d plug his surplus value at about $68.5 million, assuming 11.5 fWAR remaining over the course of his contract. I don’t recall running a surplus value analysis on the return in the Cole trade or evaluating it at this time. Kevin pegged him at $35-40 million. That’s projecting him at roughly 3.5 fWAR for his remaining two years. Without going too much into the math, I’d put Archer’s package around $84-88 million depending on who the final piece is. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow have higher upside than anyone shipped back in the Cole deal, but I can’t put Meadows at more than an average player right now nor can I project Glasnow to produce more than a handful of fWAR for the Pirates. I could be incredibly wrong here if either exceed my current expectations and honestly, I hope they do. I’d have also put the return for the Cole deal in the $80-$84 million range with Joe Musgrove averaging 1.5 fWAR, Colin Moran averaging 1 fWAR. I’d have put Feliz in the same boat as I currently put Glasnow and I’d add about $4 million for Jason Martin as a B- bat. Martin’s breakout likely made it all the easier to trade Meadows.
While an extended hot streak could have the front office’s vision of the future distorted, the circumstances surrounding the club and the trade market look different now than they did in the offseason. Lack of top end pitching held them back and bringing in Archer effectively helps cancel the loss the of Cole. They dealt a package of similar value based on present evaluations to the one they received from the Astros. Meanwhile, they get better value back from the Rays than the Astros got based on reasonable expectations for Cole’s productivity. In the end, the Pirates took advantage of a more favorable market and if some of the positives seen in June and July of 2018 carry over to 2019, the lack of a front end of the rotation shouldn’t hold them back.