You've probably heard the name "Gerrit Cole" an awful lot over the last five years, despite the fact he's never pitched in a major-league game. The Yankees drafted him back in 2008, but he declined to sign, and instead inked a deal with the Pirates in 2011 after jumping up 27 spots in the draft order to first overall. Now, after a season and change in the minors, Cole is set to make his big-league debut on Tuesday, when he'll take on the Giants in Pittsburgh.
Just how will he do is the question of the day, or really, the season: Cole is the Pirates' best internal bet to improve a rotation they hope can carry them to a playoff spot in 2013. Baseball America rated him the #7 prospect in the minors heading into the year, the fourth pitcher ranked, behind Dylan Bundy, Jose Fernandez, and Shelby Miller. At 22, he's the elder statesman of that bunch along with Miller, but you could argue, at least statistically, he's not quite major-league ready yet.
He hasn't wowed in the International League, as he's striking out just 6.7 batters per nine, and has seen his walk rate climb. His .216 batting average on balls in play has helped him keep runners off the basepaths, but, to his credit, he has at least been able to keep the ball on the ground and induce more ground outs than air ones. These numbers suggest he's not quite ready, but at the same time, the next step he needs to take in his education as a pitcher might be in the majors.
Cole has the kind of body scouts love from a pitcher, as he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds even at his young age. His fastball usually resides in the mid-90s, and it has plenty of movement on it. He also has plenty of tricks left in the bag after that, though, as Baseball Prospectus' Mark Anderson reminds:
Cole's slider is a second plus-plus pitch with good deception, tight spin, and extremely sharp, darting movement thrown in the mid-80s and peaking at 89-90 mph. When I saw him earlier this season, Cole's fastball and slider were strong enough on their own for him to enjoy sustained success in the majors. With work, his changeup could also become a plus pitch, though it has been inconsistent so far this year.
He's got the weapons and the love from the scouting community, but he's also a favorite of projection systems. It's a bit odd for PECOTA to like a player so young, one lacking in MLB experience, but the projection system loves Cole: before 2013 began, PECOTA forecasted Cole for a 3.93 ERA and put him on pace for a well above-average season, depending on how many innings he actually ended up with. That's just the mid-range projection: at the 90th percentile, Cole was projected to a 2.78 ERA and what would have amounted to about four wins over a full season of innings.
Now, it's June, so he won't get that full season, and maybe wouldn't have regardless given his career-high in professional innings is just 132. That being said, it's still intriguing that PECOTA put so much faith into Cole, so long as he received the opportunity to pitch.
Other than how he'll do, how many opportunities he'll have to prove PECOTA and scouts right is the question. Cole is filling in for Wandy Rodriguez, who left his previous start with a forearm injury -- should Rodriguez need to miss considerable time, Cole would likely fill-in for the duration, but if it turns out Wandy is just going to miss a start or two while he recuperates, there isn't an open spot in the rotation for Cole.
If Cole's performance forces the issue, Jeanmar Gomez, who has spent time in both the bullpen and the rotation this year, could be bounced back to relief. While Gomez currently owns a 3.07 ERA, the rest of his numbers look as uninspiring as they always do, meaning that shiny ERA won't last for very long.
Cole, of course, has to force said issue first. He's on a good run at the moment, with no runs scored off of him in his last two outings, a pair of starts that combined for 14 innings and eight strikeouts against just a pair of walks. That's the kind of production the Pirates could use out of him not just on Tuesday, but going forward -- first chance to pull it off comes against the defending NL and world champions. There could be some speed bumps along the way if he sticks, considering he hasn't destroyed Triple-A yet, but if he can get through those before too long, he might be just what the Bucs need to make 2013 different than the last 20 years.