As of this writing, the Pirates have had a solid offseason that should keep them in the 87-91 wins range. That narrow band is what a majority of teams seem to be striving for these days — just enough to get a wild card spot and see what happens in the playoffs from there.
Many fans feel that the Pirates have mostly tread water, with a potential sizeable downgrade at catcher with the loss of Russell Martin. It appears that the Pirates are banking on internal improvements from players like Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, and Gregory Polanco to make up for the loss of Martin on offense.
But for me, the key to transforming the Pirates from a Wild Card contender into a NL Central Champ is Gerrit Cole. Expectations can be burdensome, but when you are drafted 1st overall like Cole was in 2011, they are inevitable. Unlike 2002’s 1st overall pick, Bryan Bullington (whom ex-GM Dave Littlefield famously proclaimed a solid #3 starter at his press conference), Gerrit Cole has been tabbed as a future ace since Day 1.
That’s what happens when you’re 6′-4″, built like an Abrams tank (with the mound demeanor to match) and possess three plus pitches. When one of those plus pitches is a blazing 96 mph fastball that you can effortlessly dial up to 100 on occasion, you can start to see where the hype stems from. When Cole debuted in 2013 at the age of 22, he was understandably handled with care. That year, between Triple A, the Majors, and the playoffs, Cole pitched a total of 196 innings. Quite a sizeable jump from 2012’s total of 132 innings.
The 2014 season was viewed as Cole’s grand arrival on the national scene. On his radio show on 93.7 The Fan, Joe Starkey predicted that Cole would finish in the top 10 of NL Cy Young voting this past season. I didn’t disagree with his idea. But Cole’s season never really took off. Early in the season, it seemed as if Cole and the coaching staff couldn’t decide whether he should be a groundball-inducing machine or a strikeout artist. His approach of using his two-seam or four-seam would alternate at times from start to start. He wasn’t very efficient with his pitch count, either, leading to only 5 of his first 12 starts going past six innings.
After that 12th start, Cole would miss the rest of June with shoulder fatigue. He came back for two starts in late June/early July, but after his July 4th start he would not return to Pittsburgh until August 20th. At that point, I was legitimately worried about his long-term future. Elbow injuries are almost a rite of passage for pitchers, but shoulder injuries are still a death knell for many a promising career. Rotator cuff surgery is nowhere near as successful as Tommy John surgery is for elbows. It would not have bothered me if the Pirates shut Cole down for the remainder of 2014, rather than risk his career.
The downtime to rest his shoulder apparently worked though, as Cole pitched extremely well in late August and September. His last three starts were his finest of the season, each spanning 7 innings. In those 21 innings, he allowed just 14 hits, 2 walks, and punched out 27. This is the Cole we all remembered from his dominant August/September/October of 2013. He was flashing his ace potential again.
But now Cole will be entering his age-24 season and his 2nd full season in the Majors. It’s time for him to become a true ace and not just flash his potential for a month or two at a time. If Cole can ascend to the 200-210 inning zone with maintaining a 9 K/9 IP strikeout rate and maintain his career ground ball rate of 49%, the Pirates will be able to toss a saddle on Cole and ride him to a potential NL Central title. If Cole is injured again or inefficient with his pitches, leading to a depressed innings total, the Pirates will continue to be mired in the mix of teams all clawing for a Wild Card. The 2014 season seems to have more teams capable of vying for the Wild Card than in 2012 and 2013.
Cole can do this. The Pirates know he can do this. It seems with A.J. Burnett returning as a supportive mentor, rather than the firebrand self-appointed leader of the staff of 2013, Cole has the support system in place to make this happen.
200 innings. If Cole hits that threshold, the Pirates will win the NL Central. It could be as simple as that.