BOSTON—Pirates righthander Gerrit Cole pitched brilliantly on May 17 at home against the Nationals. He allowed three hits and one run over seven innings against the National League's top offense.
Then again, Cole had consistently achieved this season. He recorded a 2.84 ERA through nine starts, with a 1.02 WHIP and strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine innings.
Cole feels healthy this season, which is apparent in his velocity readings. He had averaged 96.1 mph and peaked at 99.9.
He has studied and worked to make himself a multi-dimensional pitcher who, in his May 17 start, threw 26 of 38 changeups, knuckle-curveballs and sliders for strikes.
Cole's minor league mentor Jim Benedict, now the vice president of pitching development for the Marlins, tells his coworkers that Cole is such a student of the game that he could be a pitching coach—and right now.
Cole won't turn 27 until September.
Most of Scott Boras' big clients come with an expiration date. Sometimes, that free agent promise date seems like a distraction, though others, like Max Scherzer, never seem distracted from their relentless drive for greatness.
Some believe Cole is distracted by his pending free agency after the 2019 season. The Pirates accounted for this possibility when they took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
The Pirates made the playoffs for three straight years with Cole at the front of the rotation, but they knew his expiration date would be an issue for as long as he was in Pittsburgh, a club that cannot support a $200 million contract, particularly for a pitcher.
In reality, Cole could equal a trip to the World Series for the Astros or Yankees, who have the farm systems to trade for him. His trade value diminishes somewhat if the Pirates wait until the offseason to trade him, though Cole is under club control for two seasons beyond this one.
The Yankees aren't worried about their history with Cole because scouting director Damon Oppenheimer has maintained a good relationship with Cole and his family. New York selected him out of high school in the first round of the 2008 draft, but he opted for UCLA.
If the Pirates do decide to trade Cole and reboot with a talented farm system, and with Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow in the major league rotation, they can use the kind of haul the White Sox got for Chris Sale to hasten their rebuild. Pittsburgh can point to what Sale has meant to Boston.
The Pirates must face reality:
• They were in last place in the NL Central and behind five teams in the wild-card chase as Memorial Day approached. Worse, the powerful Cardinals and Cubs loomed ahead of them in the standings.
• Taillon isn't coming back soon, not after having surgery in mid-May for testicular cancer. Neither is Starling Marte, who earned an 80-game suspension for his steroid use. And Jung-Ho Kang may not secure a work visa this year to leave South Korea after his third DUI arrest in his home country.
• No one can explain it, but Andrew McCutchen's unexpected decline in 2016 had continued in 2017. The 30-year-old had finished top five in MVP balloting each year from 2012 to 2015.
The Pirates probably will continue to listen to offers for McCutchen. And it looks as if they will listen on Cole. And why not?
The Pirates' lineup had sputtered in 2017, with the third-worst offense in the NL. Only the Padres had fielded a worse defense. And young starters like Glasnow (7.34 ERA in eight starts), Chad Kuhl (5.85 in nine starts) and Trevor Williams (6.04) endured significant growing pains.
The Pirates under general manager Neal Huntington have built a unique culture, where everyone buys into ideas and creativity without first-person pronouns.
If a team believes that Cole gives them a shot at a World Series ring this October or next, then they might be willing to meet the Pirates' asking price. The Astros and Yankees are two logical candidates.
The Pirates have had a great run, but reality is setting in. McCutchen and Cole are walking out the door soon, so the most useful perspective might be to think back to the 2011 draft, when Pittsburgh passed on Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer to identify Cole, the top college pitcher in his class.
— For more from Peter Gammons, visit GammonsDaily.com