On the morning after, the Gerrit Cole trade did not look any better to Pirates fans.
In exchange for Cole, a former All-Star and last year’s opening day starter, the Pirates got four players from the Houston Astros: third baseman Colin Moran, right-handers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, and minor league outfielder Jason Martin.
On social media sites, on sports talk radio, in church parking lots, and at tailgates before the Steelers playoff game at Heinz Field, many folks spoke up against the trade.
Who won the trade?
— Rob Biertempfel (@RobBiertempfel) January 14, 2018
Around baseball, the trade drew mixed reactions.
One veteran evaluator who regularly scouts the Astros and their farm system was not impressed by the players the Pirates received.
“I think it’s a brutal deal for Pitt,” the scout said via text message. “Musgrove and Feliz both have (major league) value, but both (as) relievers. Moran and Martin to me are throw-in types.”
Jonathan Mayo, a Pittsburgh-based analyst for MLB Pipeline, took a more favorable view.
“I like Musgrove a lot. Moran was the most advanced bat in the 2013 draft and lost his way in 2016 before swinging it really well last year. Feliz throws 100 mph, but doesn’t always know where it’s going. The Pirates have had success with helping guys like that.
“Moran and Martin are top-30 (rated) guys. Musgrove and Feliz are no longer prospects, but Musgrove was a top-100 overall prospect once upon a time.”
Why did the deal happen? One way or another, Cole eventually was going to leave the Pirates.
The club was not going to offer Cole a contract extension. And it has no chance of re-signing the right-hander when he becomes a free agent after the 2019 season.
On Saturday, general manager Neal Huntington did the only thing that makes sense in the Pirates’ business model. He traded Cole before his trade value started to slip.
Cole is 27 years old and on Friday signed a $6.75 million contract for 2018.
None of the four players the Pirates acquired is even arbitration-eligible yet. This year, Moran (25 years old), Musgrove (25) and Feliz (24) each will make around the big league minimum of $545,000.
Martin is still only a prospect — he’ll likely spend this year at Double-A Altoona — so it’s too soon to plot his big league earnings and free agency track.
By dealing Cole, the Pirates got an outfielder to dream on and gained a total of 15 years of control from three big leaguers. They also shaved about $4 million from their payroll, which again will be among the lowest in the majors.
“It was a hard decision,” Huntington said. “Even though he had two years of potential contribution left here in Pittsburgh, we traded him for a package that we believe is a combination of guys who’ve had prospect value … but also have major league value.”
Musgrove, Feliz and Moran are expected to begin the season in the majors. Moran will get a shot at being the everyday third baseman. Feliz could someday evolve into a late-inning reliever. Huntington did not say whether Musgrove — who was on the Astros’ playoff roster last year as a reliever — will pitch in the rotation or out of the bullpen.
Could the Pirates have done better than what they got?
Cole certainly has ace capabilities, but he ranked 53rd among #MLB starters (minimum 250 IP) with a 103 ERA+ over the past two seasons. That might have put a crimp into the packages the #Pirates were offered for him.
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 14, 2018
ESPN analyst Buster Olney suggested the New York Yankees likely offered a player with greater star potential, such as slugger Clint Frazier or pitcher Chance Adams.
The Pirates seemingly had a choice between a deal with more serviceable volume (HOU) and a smaller deal built around talent with a higher ceiling (NYY).
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 14, 2018
In situations like these, the Pirates’ business model often values quantity over quality. A bigger group of mid- to high-talent players could produce more long-term value than one or two players with higher upside.
Notes: Infielder Engelb Vielma and right-hander Shane Carle were designated for assignment to open 40-man roster spots for players obtained in the Cole trade. Vielma and Carle both were claimed off waivers over the past few weeks. … The Pirates used to play the Astros a couple of times each year in spring training. However, the Astros last year moved their camp from Kissimmee, Fla., to West Palm Beach, Fla., which is much farther away from Pirates camp in Bradenton, Fla.
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.