Gerrit Cole made his fifth consecutive quality start Monday night since his meltdown on opening day in Boston.
The right-hander is pitching more like the guy who won 19 games and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2015 than the one who won just seven games during an injury-plagued 2016 season.
Though Cole allowed three runs — two earned — in six innings Monday night, the Pirates ended up losing 4-3 to the Reds in 10 innings at Cincinnati. That dropped the Pirates’ record to 2-4 in Cole’s starts this season, though he has 3.50 ERA and 34-to-7 strikeout/walk ratio in 36 innings.
Therein lies the problem.
Even with an ace pitcher like Cole fronting a rotation that has been better than expected, the Pirates are just 11-14.
Center fielder Starling Marte, their best player, is out until July while serving an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s performance enhancing drug policy. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang is out indefinitely while trying to secure a work visa in his native South Korea.
The Pirates don’t have the depth to overcome those losses in the long haul. Heck, they have had just two outfielders on their roster for all but one day in the two weeks since Marte received his ban.
The Pirates are in last place in the National League Central. While they are just two games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the jammed-up standings, it is only a matter of time before the World Series champions pull away from the pack.
It is also hard to imagine the Pirates winning one of the NL’s two wild cards, even if the threshold is even slightly less than the 87 wins of last season.
Thus, at some point in the next 2 ½ months in advance of the non-waiver trading deadline July 31, the Pirates are going to need to start thinking about Cole’s future. The 26-year-old is not eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season but you can be sure that he won’t be with the Pirates beyond next season as he will be traded rather than allowed to enter free agency.
Even though Cole genuinely likes Pittsburgh, the chances of him being signed to a long-term deal have been slim. His agent, Scott Boras drives a hard bargain and the Pirates only do multi-year deals at discount prices.
Any goodwill between player and team was shattered last spring with the infamous “miscalculation” in which the Pirates offered Cole a contract without a raise following his 19-win season then said it was an accounting error.
Thus, the Pirates owe it to themselves to explore the idea of trading Cole this season. His value will never be higher if he continues to pitch this well.
Contending teams with a willingness to spend would likely give up at least two top-of-the-line prospects and a third solid prospect for Cole knowing they would also have him under club control through the next two seasons.
Cole is also going to become very costly after this season. He will likely at least double his $3.75-million salary in his second trip through the arbitration process next winter.
Trading Cole would be a win for everybody.
The Pirates could add some top talent to their organization to retool — if not outright rebuild — around a core group that would include right-handed starters Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl, left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero, first baseman Josh Bell, left fielder Gregory Polanco and Class AAA Indianapolis center fielder Austin Meadows.
Owner Bob Nutting would save money. No need to say more there.
And Cole would go to a team better positioned to take advantage of his talent than the Pirates.