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Coming to grips with the Gerrit Cole trade

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates
Gerrit Cole is on his way to the Houston Astros.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Well, the Gerrit Cole trade finally happened. And, after months of titillating rumors featuring the names of ballyhooed prospects, the Houston Astros fortified their status as the premier franchise in baseball while the Pirates seem to have obtained a collection of spare parts.

Third baseman Colin Moran, right-handed pitcher Joe Musgrove, reliever Michael Feliz, and minor-league outfielder Jason Martin will come to Pittsburgh in exchange for Cole. Moran, Musgrove, and Feliz have a good chance to be on the Pirates’ Opening Day roster, but their upsides appear to be far removed from the shiny top prospects that the Pirates were linked to when the possibility trading Cole became apparent earlier this offseason.

This return says a few things about the Pirates. First is that Cole was not as valuable as many we had thought. ESPN's Jerry Crasnick said that all of the high-end Astros prospects were off limits in the Cole deal.

That is understandable. While Cole has been great in the past, notably in 2015 when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, he has struggled to replicate that performance in the past two seasons. And even though Cole is an above average major league pitcher, dreams of him seizing the reins as the Pirates’ unquestioned ace have largely diminished.

Still, this is not the direction-defining, domino-tumbling maneuver that many of us expected it to be. Entering this offseason, the Pirates did not seem to have a clear indication as to whether they were going to try to compete in 2018 or attempt a rebuild.

Presumably, trading Cole would have resolved that issue. But the players the Pirates received for their best starting pitcher are more geared to helping fill holes on the 2018 team even if the gains may be less apparent in 2020.

Neal Huntington pretty much told Post-Gazette reporter Liz Bloom that yesterday when he was asked about the trade.

“It’s the balance of immediate and moderate and longer-term … we felt this was the right move to get these players that are major-league ready with 15 years contribution combined,” Huntington said.

In many ways, this is the kind of trade that should have been expected from the Pirates’ notoriously risk-averse general manager. Huntington has long eschewed flashy free agent signings or big-splash deadline deals for low-key, cost-effective alternatives and all of the players the Pirates received in this trade seem to fit that bill.

Moran, 25, enters the Pirates system as their number four prospect according to and figures to spend a good deal of time manning third base in Pittsburgh this season, giving David Freese some much-needed rest.

Hitting from the left side, Moran posted some quality numbers last season in 79 games at Triple-A (.308/.373/.543) with 18 homers. Typically cited as a contact-first hitter, Moran reportedly made some changes to his swing to enhance his power and boasted a .235 ISO last year with the Fresno Grizzlies. Whether or not that power surge is legitimate will likely make a huge difference in Moran's major league outlook.

Musgrove has been in the big leagues for the better part of two years, making 49 appearances and 25 starts for the Astros. The 25-year old struggled in the rotation last season, posting a 6.12 ERA as a starter, but became an effective reliever (1.44 ERA, 2.68 FIP in 31.1 innings of relief) for the Astros down the stretch.

In Pittsburgh, Musgrove appears to be in line for a rotation spot. The 6'5" sinkerballer is the kind of guy who Ray Searage and the Pirates coaches have helped find success in the past, but pitchers who frequently allow contact are a dying breed in the modern day juiced ball era.

Feliz, 24, is a hard-throwing reliever who has spent most of the past two seasons in the Astros bullpen. The righty is a classic fastball/slider power pitcher who could potentially become a high-leverage reliever if he can solve some of his control problems.

None of these players are the slam dunks that many expected the Pirates to receive for a player like Cole, but this kind of trade may have had less to do with Huntington’s individual team-building philosophies and more to do with the balance of power in the league.

It’s undeniable that baseball has again devolved into a “haves versus have-nots” kind of format. There are a handful of teams (the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals) that are obvious odds-on favorites to compete for a World Series in 2018. While there are a few other teams on the brink, more than half of the MLB right now is either in the process of a rebuild or teetering on the brink of one.

This disparity, combined with the league’s increasingly austere luxury tax policy, has skewed the market heavily in these teams’ favor. In years past, competitive teams were eager to shell out big money for high-end free agents or sell their best prospects for bona fide major league stars. But these recent super teams already have the big league talent and top-tier prospects. With the exception of the Indians, they have money to burn, too, but the luxury tax provides a convenient excuse to not spend it frivolously.

Basically, there is little reason for these teams to extend themselves by offering premier prospects for a very-good-but-not-elite player like Cole.

Huntington likely saw the writing on the wall. With no money to spend and two years left on Cole’s contract, he pulled the trigger on what he said was the best offer available.

The Pirates' decision to trade Cole for a bevy of unremarkable pieces reminded me of the 2014 offseason when the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, two teams who have been considered the Pirates’ small-budget contemporaries, each traded controllable young players for less than market value.

Let’s take a look back:

- On November 29, 2014, the Oakland Athletics traded Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays for third baseman Brett Lawrie, right-hander Kendall Graveman, left-hander Sean Nolin and minor league shortstop Franklin Barreto.

- On December 17, 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays traded Wil Myers to the San Diego Padres for Steven Souza, Jr. and minor league left-hander Travis Ott while the Washington Nationals acquired shortstop Trea Turner and right-hander Joe Ross.

At the time, those moves were confusing and even now, a little more than three years later, they still seem pretty bad. Donaldson won the AL MVP in 2015 with Toronto and has been worth 21.1 bWAR since leaving Oakland. Souza has been a solid player for Tampa, but Turner looks to be the clear-cut best player in that deal.

Now, Cole is not the same as Donaldson and Myers. And, with the information we have right now, it doesn’t seem like Huntington had the opportunity to spurn an elite prospect in favor of a handful of less-exciting young big leaguers.

The impetus behind these trades, however, are similar. All of these clubs built championship contenders through unorthodox means with little money. All of these clubs rest in markets with fragile fanbases. All of these clubs have less room for error than their wealthier counterparts.

This perhaps makes the median more appealing for teams like the Pirates. They can point to the depth of the minor leagues and continue to insist that, if a few things break their way, another playoff team will soon come to town (or at least honestly say that they aren't tanking).

As a fan, it'd be far better to see this team go full bore in one direction or the other. If they want to compete, that's great! There are a ton of reasonably priced free agents on the market. Want to tear down and start over? That's cool, too.

But the middle is the most frustrating place that a team can be. And that's where the Pirates are. Consciously, purposefully stuck in the middle. Hoping against hope that everything goes right.