It’s Gerrit Cole day here in Pittsburgh, and you should be excited about it.
There’s definitely a lot of hype going around town and the baseball world in anticipation of tonight’s game. PNC Park won’t be sold out, but it should have an above-average weeknight crowd full of die-hard fans that quickly bought tickets to see the top prospect make his debut .MLB Network has picked up the telecast as well. You’d have to go way back to find a debut of a Pirates prospect that received this much attention. Pedro Alvarez‘s first game was fairly exciting, but it was in the middle of a terrible season with very little advance notice – hence a mostly uneventful atmosphere (also on a weeknight).
This isn’t going to be like Stephen Strasburg‘s electric introduction to the baseball world (that came at the expense of our Bucs). Well, it probably isn’t. Cole has the stuff to do that, but as you likely know by know, he hasn’t exactly been lighting the stat sheets on fire in the minor leagues. That’s a concern, but read this excellent feature from Travis Sawchick at the Trib and you’ll feel a lot better about it. Cole is not here to be the Pirates’ ace right away and rack up double digit K’s consistently. He is here to help the Pirates win baseball games. He is ready to be an effective major league pitcher – not an ace – and is by far the Pirates’ best option to fill an empty rotation spot going forward. Even if he doesn’t strike out ten-plus or even make a quality start tonight, that’s the exciting part. Cole isn’t really supposed to be the featured attraction in this rotation yet – that designation still belongs to A.J. Burnett, followed closely by Francisco Liriano if he keeps it up…and maybe even Wandy Rodriguez. Cole should be able to take on that role eventually, but for now he’s essentially just a reinforcement for the Pirates. An ideal and potentially really awesome reinforcement, but not a leader or immediate ace.
I still haven’t seen Cole pitch more than one inning, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Pirates’ choice to draft him over some of the other top options, and his minor league numbers aren’t quite where I’d want them to be for a #1 pick. That said, I am feeling pretty good about his chances to be able to handle that “reinforcement” role. The strikeouts haven’t been there, but the recent scouting reports and descriptions of his last few outings lead me to believe that he really has learned (and is still learning, of course) how to pitch as the Trib article indicates. He has the well-known upper 90′s fastball, a changeup that is faster than some other big-league fastballs, plus a curve and a developing slider. With that kind of arsenal and an improved approach (plus the added bonus of Russell Martin behind the plate), it’s not hard to imagine him succeeding even without a ton of strikeouts – just as he has in his current stretch of 18.2 scoreless innings. Location is a concern, but it’s certainly more forgivable for Cole to miss with a fastball than it is for, say, Jeff Locke. Composure for a rookie is also a variable, but that should come with time – and he’s not a stranger to big situations, having pitched in the College World Series.
With Cole in the rotation, the Pirates are adding a huge piece to the team that should continue to improve and help their chances as the season goes on. And yes, I do think he’ll stay in the rotation – Neal Huntington didn’t commit either way, but it sounded to me (on his Sunday radio show) that he intends to have Cole here for good unless he really struggles for a few starts and needs to go back. The Bucs have already kept Cole down long enough to ensure an extra year of control, although by bringing him up today they run a slight risk of making him a Super Two player and giving him an extra arbitration year (meaning he’d still be under team control for the same amount of time, but would make more money).
Regardless of whether or not he’s here for good, I think Cole is ready to handle the majors. I don’t think he’s ready to dominate, but he’s ready to help the Pirates – and hopefully will start progressing (and maybe show some flashes) towards ace-type dominance along the way. The first step is tonight at 7:05.
PHOTO: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports