Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Realistic expectations for Gerrit Cole
By Eric Karabell
It would be a waste of time to look for faults in Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole's big league debut. He took a four-hit, no-walk shutout into the seventh inning at PNC Park against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, with a larger-than-normal crowd cheering him on, and was ultimately charged with two runs in 6 1/3 innings and won the game. Cole threw 59 of 81 pitches for strikes, his fastball and slider looked nasty and hard, and his changeup worked well, too. Giants hitters had little chance.
Cole even drove in the first two runs of the game with a single to center field. The guy certainly looks the part of a major leaguer, and while it's premature to call him the next Justin Verlander, there's little doubt a promising career is under way. Of course, I was saying this before Tuesday. One game shouldn't alter months/years of analysis.
But I also must add my standard fare for when a 22-year-old kid becomes all the fantasy rage, which is to be careful just how much you trust him. We've seen in the past week how Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has been exalted by fantasy owners not only to quick 100 percent ownership, but perhaps the very top of the outfielder heap, which is foolish this soon. The guy is awesome, but sorry, I'm just not close to there yet. There's always a learning curve with young players; even Mike Trout did little in his first real taste of big league pitching (in 2011).
Cole, the first pick in the 2011 MLB draft, breezed through the minors with seemingly little resistance. While his strikeout rate at Triple-A Indianapolis wasn't noteworthy, and he's still prone to occasional lapses in fastball command, try telling that to a fantasy owner today! He'll be universally loved and probably at the top of the most added list by Thursday -- he jumped to 50 percent ownership even before throwing a big league pitch -- despite the fact the Giants entered Tuesday 23rd in road OPS and placed No. 3 hitter Pablo Sandoval on the disabled list earlier in the day. Cole averaged 96.2 mph with his many fastballs Tuesday, which would be the highest average among starting pitchers, and he reached 99.4 mph with one of them, which is also the fastest pitch thrown by a starter. Hey, he's exciting to watch and was certainly effective.
And all this contributes to why most prospects who make impressive debuts are natural sell-high options. What should we expect from Cole the final three-plus months? That's impossible to predict. Hitters will adjust to him, to a fastball that is hard but also straight. He'll need to adjust back, and that's if the Pirates keep him in the majors; the team seems noncommittal on how many starts he'll make and will soon have safer, veteran options returning from injury, like everyone's favorite fantasy barometer, lefty Wandy Rodriguez.
A few weeks ago, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha was the next Verlander, the hot player to add in fantasy, and in his second start he turned into Joe Blanton and was mass-dropped. His third outing was also Tuesday night, and he pitched well in beating the New York Mets, but his rotation spot isn't secure, either. We can't be so reactive with young players, or veteran ones for that matter. Regardless, the same caveat on hot newcomers applies to Cole just as it did with Wacha, Jose Fernandez, Tony Cingrani and Kevin Gausman, among others: If you have room to add one of these potentially formidable strikeout pitchers, go for it, because the upside is enticing, and even if only one of every 10 rookie pitchers becomes that guy to break the mold, well, you want that guy. There's little risk because if they get lit up a few times, like Baltimore Orioles right-hander Gausman clearly has, they'll either end up back in the minors or you can just move on.
[+]Enlarge Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports After peaking in the top 5, Starling Marte has fallen to No. 37 on the ESPN Player Rater.
While we're talkin' Buccos, allow me to share observations from watching outfielder and leadoff hitter Starling Marte performing recently. Exactly one month ago, when Marte was hitting .336, I remarked in various places -- blogs, chats, videos, podcasts -- how there was at least 50 points of batting average regression coming quickly, due to the 24-year-old refusing to show even a hint of plate discipline. Well, Marte is now hitting .279, and on Tuesday he smacked his first home run since May 5. He does have 18 steals, including three in as many games, but he's obviously raw.
He's not in danger of heading to Indianapolis anytime soon, because even while slumping, he's superior to the likes of Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Travis Snider and whatever else the organization can find for left field. But he remains an unfinished product, on pace for 33 walks and 149 strikeouts, and he's also a bit sloppy on the bases, having been caught stealing three times in June already. Marte hit .327 in April and .243 in May, and so far in June he's hitting .233. His overall BABIP is .346, but with his speed, we should expect it to be higher than the league average. Of course, with his aggressiveness at the plate, we should be pleased if he hits .270 with double-digit home runs and 35 steals. He's definitely worth owning in all leagues for the counting numbers, but beware that batting average risk.