SOUTH HILLS – Gerrit Cole’s days as a minimum-wage baseball player are over. Cole is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career this winter, and again in 2018 and 2019 before becoming eligible for free agency after the 2019 season.
As you may know, a player’s first year arbitration salary is usually relatively modest, before growing substantially in the second and third years (and fourth if enjoying Super 2 status).
If Cole pitches more like his 2015-self going forward, he could earn $20 million-plus in his final year of arbitration. He could become too expensive for Pirates’ ownership (see: David Price and Tampa).
So that brings us to one of a number key questions facing the Pirates this offseason: does the club take its chances going through the arbitration process with Cole or does it it try to create cost certainty through the arbitration years? (Which would perhaps extend the stay of Cole in Pittsburgh even if such a deal did not buy out any free agency seasons, which is unlikely).
Rob Biertempfel reported this yesterday:
“Sources close to the situation told the Tribune-Review there is little chance the Pirates will sign Cole to a multiyear deal that would buy out some of his free agent years. … Such an deal wouldn’t make financial sense for Cole unless the team grossly overpaid on the back end…. Cole’s injury history — he also was on the DL twice in 2014 because of shoulder fatigue and lat tightness — makes any big-money deal more of a gamble for the club. The Pirates are more inclined than most teams to favor lower-risk, shorter-term deals.
It’s rare that a Scott Boras client signs an extension before or early in arbitration status. It’s rare that a Boras client does not enter the free agent market as soon as possible, though there are examples.
So it seems unlikely Cole will be with the Pirates beyond 2019.
I do suspect Cole might be open to a three-year, $35-40 million deal that locks him up through arbitration. While there was animosity between the two camps this spring due to Cole’s displeasure with his near league-minimum contract, Cole Hamels had similar issues with the Phillies and eventually signed a three-year deal that bought out his arbitration years a few years back. I do think Cole is reasonable.
And while the injuries makes such a deal riskier, perhaps there’s some doubt in Cole’s mind about his ability to maximize arbitration earnings by logging 200 innings every season. Perhaps he would be willing to trade some earning upside for security.
Now is the club interested after Cole’s uneven performance in 2016? After he’s had two injury-plagued seasons since 2014?
The Pirates have preferred to sign their own players, players they know well, to lucrative contracts from Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Cervelli to Gregory Polanco and Francisco Liriano.
I would have to think there is some interest level in reaching a multi-year contract with Cole. After all this is a No. 1 overall pick, this is a pitcher who has pitched like a top-of-the-rotation arm for extended periods. The Pirates are not easily going to find a replacement outside the organization.
It’s about finding common ground.
If the Pirates are not able to work out a multi-year contract with Cole that creates cost certainty during his arbitration years, then the odds he is eventually traded rise significantly.
I would be surprised if Cole was traded in 2017. After all, the Pirates have enough rotation question marks entering the season and Cole is just a year removed from pitching like an ace.
But if the Pirates and Cole can’t work out a deal it’s possible he does makes not it through the 2019 season in Pittsburgh. And that’s not an ideal scenario for a former No. 1 overall pick.
Perhaps the two sides can find common ground this winter. But the more time that passes, the less likely it is that a deal comes together.
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
>>I absolutely loved how Cleveland manager Terry Francona employed his bullpen in Game 1 of the ALDS, going to Andrew Miller in the fifth, and getting 80 combined pitches out of his top two relievers. That’s creative, urgent managing running in contrast to Buck Showalter‘s approach last week. Did Miller come in too early? Maybe. Maybe there would have been a higher-leverage situation later to handle, but it’s better to use your top arm than to never use him at all.
I’d love to see the Pirates be more creative with not only their top bullpen arms next season but with multi-inning relievers. Joe Blanton would be interesting alongside Juan Nicasio in the bullpen.
>>“I don’t see myself needing to move. I don’t feel like I’m slowing down and hurting my team because of where I play. Playing center field is one thing, but being a leader out there is another. That’s something we need.” - Andrew McCutchen to MLB. com on the idea of moving to left field.
The metrics say otherwise and players do not fill out lineup cards.
It will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle this situation, which includes a consideration of McCutchen’s pride and ego. Does McCutchen have to be happy to perform well? Will he buy in? He bought into hitting second this spring, but this is a different situation, a different animal. More pride is at stake. Again, even if the Pirates moved McCutchen to left, it won’t be easy to hide him in the game’s deepest left field. To improve outfield defense, McCutchen would likely have to be traded.
>>Looking for some silver linings? A number of prospects took a step forward in the system in 2016 as Andrew Erickson noted in looking at the Pirates’ next wave of prospects. If Kevin Newman can stick at short, he has the potential to be a very valuable asset moving forward, though he cooled off in the second half.
>>The Blue Jays are Pittsburgh North with Russell Martin, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Jose Bautista and Jason Grilli all on the playoff roster.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 8 of 9
Russell Martin‘s postseason appearances in the last nine seasons. Martin is a special player. While a healthy Cervelli replaces much of Martin’s value (he was actually more valuable in 2015) Martin still has the better arm, more power, and has special baseball makeup.
HE SAID IT
“Ray (Searage, pitching coach) and Gerrit had conversations about where Gerrit is mechanically and what was different this year from last year. (They talked about) what could work to allow him to get that 200-inning threshold to become that workhorse. There are always some minor adjustments that we can make with guys to help them get a little bit better.”
– Neal Huntington on Gerrit Cole.