Earlier today, the Chicago Cubs acquired starting pitcher Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox. And it wasn’t cheap.
The Cubs surrendered outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez, who is currently ranked fifth on Baseball America’s Mid-Season Top 100 Prospects list, starting pitcher Dylan Cease, ranked 83rd on that same list, first baseman Matt Rose and infielder Bryant Flete.
After the Pirates failed to trade Andrew McCutchen this past winter, there was talk of the team doubling down and trading for Quintana as the White Sox looked to continue selling off assets after they dealt Chris Sale and Adam Eaton for a boatload of high-upside minor leaguers.
The smoke surrounding Quintana became so considerable that Pirates general manager Neal Huntington felt fit to deliver one of his patented 800-word runaround responses to the situation.
“The best way to position ourselves to win a World Series is to get to the playoffs consistently and frequently, and we’re not of the mindset that the way to do that is to jeopardize our future for our present or to jeopardize our present for our future,” Huntington said. “We want to be a good team as consistently and frequently as possible and the only way to do that in a small market is to have a lot of good players, to have a lot of good players in your system and a trade of that magnitude would have been contradictory.”
TLDR: The White Sox wanted top prospects for Quintana and the Pirates didn’t want to give them up.
It turns out that Chicago’s price tag for Quintana was probably not exaggerated: The Cubs surrendered their top two prospects to acquire the left-hander and his favorable contract that could keep him in blue pin stripes through 2020 at below market rate.
To get Quintana, the Pirates likely would have had to surrender prized prospect Austin Meadows and at least one more of their most promising young players. Whether or not the Pirates should have made this deal is debatable, but a trade like this would certainly contradict Huntington’s typical stinginess when it comes to trading prospects.
Quintana moving across town is also significant because it was the first major blow of the 2017 Hot Stove. Even though the Cubs carried a lackluster 43-45 record into the All-Star Break, Fangraphs still projects that the defending World Series champions have a 57.2 percent chance to win the division and there was little doubt that they would be buyers.
And the steep price that they paid to acquire Quintana sets the bar pretty high for teams searching for starting pitching as we approach the July 31st trade deadline.
The Pirates aren’t out of it yet and likely will not decide whether they are buyers or sellers until this upcoming seven-game home stand (three weekend games against the St. Louis Cardinals followed by four games against the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers) finishes, at the earliest.
But the Bucs are seven games out of first place and, if that doesn’t change quickly, they could unload some pieces before the trade deadline. Fungible one-year contracts like Tony Watson and Juan Nicasio would be no-brainers, but the Pirates will certainly receive some calls about more significant pieces such as Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and, most relevant to this story, Gerrit Cole.
While there figure to be plenty of sellers on this year’s market – only 13 of 30 MLB teams entered the All-Star Break with a winning record compared to 19 at this time last year – there are very few players who could command the type of interest that a controllable young talent like Cole would.
Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics is one, for sure. Atlanta’s Julio Teheran might be another. If the Tampa Bay Rays fall out of contention within the next two weeks, which would be tough to do in the American League Wild Card logjam, Chris Archer has been a frequently cited trade target recently.
But aside from those few exceptions, the Pirates could have maybe the most valuable chip in a shallow market if they decide to shop their 26-year old right-hander, even though Cole is in the midst of an inconsistent season.
Cole, of course, was the top overall pick in the 2011 Amateur Draft. He received an $8 million signing bonus, flew through the minor leagues, and made an impact as soon as he debuted midway through 2013. The Pirates’ righty took his game to another level in 2015 when he was an All-Star and finished fourth in Cy Young voting.
Since flirting with ace-level status in ’15, Cole has faltered a bit compared to the lofty standards that were thrust upon him. An injury-plagued 2016 season saw a decrease in strikeout rate and an increase in walk rate. And after he had a great start to this season, those same negative trends have continued and have been compounded by a staggering 17.9 percent HR/FB rate, which has inflated his ERA to 4.43 and has obviously frustrated Cole.
Still, Cole is a valuable commodity. Even with this season’s power explosion, Cole’s HR/FB rate is high and should eventually regress. His fastball still rests in the mid-90s and teams are going to be able to look past his inflated ERA and see that he is a young pitcher who has star-caliber stuff.
Compared to Quintana, who is three years older than Cole and is also battling through some home run issues in what has been the worst season of his career, Cole, who is under team control through 2019, should command an even greater haul than what the Cubs gave up this afternoon.
Five of this season's contending teams - the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, and Rockies - are also ranked within the top ten of Baseball America's Organizational Talent Rankings. With the possible exception of the Dodgers, all of those teams would likely jump at the chance to add Cole for the stretch run and have the resources to acquire him.
The question will be how high they are willing to jump.
What if New York offers Gleyber Torres (#3) and two of their six other Top 100 prospects for Cole? Or if Colorado decides their chance to compete right now is worth trading shortstop prospect Brendan Rodgers (#7)? The Astros are the best team in baseball right now, but maybe their recent late-season shortcomings could coerce them to surrender Kyle Tucker (#15) and a couple of their other highly-touted prospects?
Huntington said that he expects this team to be competitive next year, which is exactly what he has to say. But, if the Pirates do not make up enough ground in the next two weeks to consider themselves legitimate contenders, this will be the second consecutive milquetoast season for the Pirates.
And after what would be another proverbial bridge year, it's fair to question how stable the ground is on the other side and if it wouldn't be wise to sacrifice a bit of the present to increase the chances of a better future.