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Injury-prone season could have long-term effect on Cole contract extension talks | TribLIVE.com
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Injury-prone season could have long-term effect on Cole contract extension talks

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole watches from the dugout during a game against the Nationals on Sept. 23, 2016, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole hangs his head after giving up a run during a game against the Marlins on Aug. 19, 2016, at PNC Park.

This past season got off to a sour start for Gerrit Cole before the Pirates right-hander even pitched in his first game.

An offseason rib injury set Cole back almost two weeks at the start of spring training. As he worked his way back, Cole got into a public spat with management over his salary.

The Pirates needed Cole to anchor their rotation, especially after Francisco Liriano was traded. Instead, Cole produced career lows in innings pitched, victories and strikeouts.

Cole made only 21 starts and went 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA. He went on the disabled list three times, the last one a 60-day stint because of elbow inflammation that prematurely ended his season in mid-September.

The struggles Cole went through this season could impact — and perhaps hasten — his departure from Pittsburgh.

Arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, Cole is under team control through the 2019 season. After that, he can bolt via free agency.

General manager Neal Huntington and agent Scott Boras declined to comment on whether Cole will get a contract extension.

However, 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.

Catcher Francisco Cervelli, who got a three-year, $31 million extension this year, has been injury prone. However, Cervelli also has shown a willingness to play through pain.

Cervelli returned quicker than expected from hamate surgery. After coming off the DL, Cervelli played in 52 of the Pirates’ final 70 games despite taking a beating on his hands, wrists, fingers and legs.

It wasn’t until after the Pirates were eliminated from the wild-card chase that Cervelli finally was shut down.

When Cole came off the DL on Sept. 12, he made one start against the Philadelphia Phillies. He lasted just two innings and allowed five runs, four hits and four walks.

The next day, the Pirates gave Cole the rest of the season off.

Cole indicated he might tweak his offseason routine to attack his problems, although he offered no specifics. Huntington also was vague when asked whether a new program could help Cole.

“Ray (Searage, pitching coach) and Gerrit had conversations about where Gerrit is mechanically and what was different this year from last year,” Huntington said. “(They talked about) what could work to allow him to get that 200-inning threshold to become that workhorse. There always some minor adjustments that we can make with guys to help them get a little bit better.”

With an eye toward avoiding injuries, the front office has tried to manage Cole’s workload as he progressed from prospect to rookie to big leaguer.

In 2012, his last full season in the minors, Cole went from High-A Bradenton to Triple-A Indianapolis. He threw a total of 132 innings.

A year later, Cole’s innings count increased by 40 percent to 185 13. The figure dropped to 160 13 in 2014, mostly because of Cole’s two DL stints.

In 2015, he threw a career-high 208 innings, a 30 percent increase from the previous season. Cole was injured again much of this season, and his total dropped to a career-low 116 innings.

Boras has caused friction with some clubs for arguing against high innings-count increases during his clients’ pre-arbitration years.

Relations between Boras and the Pirates are professional and outwardly cordial. The front office also has made it clear it will follow its own plan for player development.

Arbitration often is a stark, brutal process. It’s a business transaction, but egos and feelings on both sides may be bruised.

After their squabble last spring, the Pirates could opt to offer Cole a three-year contract that would simply get him through his arbitration years. That’s something even Boras might not oppose.

“As always, I present it to the players, talk to them about it and the decision is theirs,” Boras said.

However, sources have told the Trib the Pirates are not interested in offering Cole a three-year contract.

Cole’s struggles this year give the club good ammunition to use if his case goes to an arbitration hearing.

The most likely path forward for the Pirates and Cole is a year-by-year slog through arbitration. That’s the same approach the team took with second baseman Neil Walker.

A Super Two player, Walker went through the arbitration process three times, the last coming in 2015 when he lost his hearing and was awarded $8 million.

Last December, before Walker could complete his final turn of arbitration, the Pirates traded him to the New York Mets.

The scenario could play out the same with Cole. The right-hander will have significant trade value, even coming off a down year, because scouts believe Cole’s stuff will play at the big league level.

The biggest reason for the Pirates sub-par 2016 season was unreliable, underperforming starting pitching. As Huntington retools the rotation this winter — knowing Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and other youngsters are ready to fill bigger roles — he should at least start listening to trade offers for Cole.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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