The good teams in the American League keep getting better at the expense of National League teams that seem to have other things on their minds besides winning baseball games.
On Saturday night the Houston Astros traded pitcher Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, reliever Michael Feliz, and outfielder Jason Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Gerrit Cole, putting an end to weeks of speculation about where Pittsburgh’s top starter would end up and, more recently, rumors of advanced discussions between the two teams.
That’s what he’ll be for Houston, too: pitching behind Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, Cole will be the guy who firms up those starts in the postseason that went to Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. The defending World Series champions and arguable best team in baseball just got better, and they’ll have Cole on their team until at least 2020 — possibly longer if they’re able to convince him to sign an extension.
It’s less obvious what the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing. Are they cutting payroll? Perhaps, but Cole is in arbitration right now, not on some lengthy buyout deal that ownership might be regretting — and besides, along with every other team, the Pirates are receiving a $50 million payout from Disney for that mega-corporation’s purchase of a controlling stake in BAMtech. Pittsburgh’s payroll still hovers below $100 million; the only way Cole is the guy to go in a salary-clearing move is if the team is doing a straight-up fire sale and joining the hard-tank movement.
That would be stupid, in addition to being dishonest to the spirit of competition. Four National League teams hard-tanked last year — which is to say, they obviously set up their rosters to lose baseball games in the upcoming season in order to secure a high draft pick — the San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves.
When combined with the unexpected disasters that the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets turned into, half of the National League was a trash fire last season, and that led to the Braves, for instance, ending up with a pick outside of the top five. They lost all those games just to pick eighth overall.
This upcoming season, the Phillies and the Braves are leaving the ranks of the intentional tankers (or so it seems), but they’ve been replaced by the Miami Marlins, who are aggressively and proudly dealing every roster asset the team has for mediocre-to-bad prospects. It’s quite something to watch a team pound its chest as it steers the ship into the iceberg, claiming that this is good and what smart clubs do. But here we are. The Pirates have been less overt about their desires to punt on their roster and go back to quietly banking media contract revenues and losing 90 games a year, but that seems to be what’s going on.
Let’s just look at the return: Both Musgrove and Feliz have been major league players for two years each, and both have been putrid. Despite Musgrove’s pedigree — he was late first-round pick in 2011 and managed to make it into Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects in 2016 at No. 83 — all he did in 2016 and 2017 was fail to stick in the Houston rotation, unless someone with better results got hurt. His 171.1 IP of 4.52 ERA ball across those two seasons is unimpressive, and his peripherals are pedestrian as well. He doesn’t strike out enough guys to justify how hittable he is.
Feliz has been even worse, with a 4.94 ERA through 113 IP over the past two seasons at the major league level. Again, this isn’t a kid in the minors with still time to dream on; Feliz is in the bigs, has been knocked around and hasn’t made sufficient adjustments in more than two seasons. There’s still promising stuff there and potential for a longer major league career, but the best potential player the Pirates might get out of him through wishful magic is what? A solid closer? Feliz is the best, most projectable player in the deal.
Colin Moran was not only blocked on the Houston roster by a much better player in Alex Bregman, but was unlikely to be in the majors on opening day with the Astros. Heck, he’s unlikely to be in the majors on opening day with the Pirates.
Moran is another former first-round guy who had a great upside years ago, but his most recent achievement was managing a .697 OPS in AAA hitter’s paradise PCL Fresno in 2016, then only getting 350 plate appearances between all levels last season. He, too, will need some magic to become the player that should be going to the Pirates in a deal like this.
Jason Martin was left unprotected in this year’s Rule 5 draft and went unselected. That says what needs to be said about him. Best of luck to him in Pittsburgh.
Could the deal turn out okay for Pittsburgh? Sure, if a bunch of things break right. The point of trading a surefire guy like Cole, though, is to get a return in which you don’t have to hit maximum upside on every single guy for the deal to be positive (let alone reverse the past, like with Musgrove and Feliz). And these are all vaguely “win now” players, too. Except for Martin, every guy in the deal has had his service time clock started for awhile now and is progressing towards arbitration.
Are Pirates fans meant to believe that this trade makes Pittsburgh a better team right now? Who in the world is the Pirates front office kidding?
Perhaps this offseason we’ll get a demonstration from more than five or six teams that they’re interested in winning baseball games in 2018. It would be nice. But after this latest trade, we’re still waiting.
By Jonathan Bernhardt