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What the Pirates and Astros were thinking with the Gerrit Cole trade

The Astros got better, and the Pirates started down a dark, winding path.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Houston Astros were already so talented that they won the World Series with a bullpen that was shooting out sparks like a collection of broken androids from the original Westworld, and they just got better. Gerrit Cole is on the Astros now, giving them a rotation that features Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, and Lance McCullers. Mercy.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that crawled out of the abyss only a few short years ago, bloody fingernail by bloody fingernail, are apparently rebuilding. While it’s hard to blame them after two sub-.500 seasons, it’s only natural to wonder what could have been. This was their best core in 25 years, and they felt forced to move on. More trades will come.

That means it’s time to grade this trade. I give it an “A.” I don’t know which team won and which team lost, but the trade itself is incredibly fun, especially in this transaction desert that is the 2017-2018 offseason. This will nourish us for several days, at least. And then we will get greedy again.

But if we’re not going to grade the trade for each specific team, which is always silly right after a trade is announced, we can at least crawl into the heads of the general managers who made the trade. What are these teams thinking? Why would they make this deal?

What the Astros are thinking

They wanted to get better. Cole is a fine pitcher, and he was better than some of the pitchers they were planning to use in their rotation. Now they’re better. GMing is easy!

More specifically, though, the Astros are in a weird spot where they have to at least consider their window. They’re young and unburdened with awful long-term deals, but they’re not bulletproof. Dallas Keuchel is a free agent after the season. Jose Altuve is a free agent after the 2019 season, as is Justin Verlander. It’s hard to suggest that a core of Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman should be mentioned in the same breath as the words “closing window,” but the Astros will have some tough decisions to make soon. They will have to give up their financial flexibility and commit to some long-term deals at some point, whether it’s to keep their own free agents or add new ones. And if those long-term deals are duds and the next wave of prospects doesn’t pan out, suddenly that core isn’t so infallible.

Or, if you want to dumb it down a bit: The Astros know they’re great now, but there isn’t a team in baseball that knows with metaphysical certitude how they’ll look in three years. Don’t worry about 2022 if you can build a superteam in 2018. That’s a truism that you can embroider on a pillow.

It’s debatable that Cole is so talented that he helps turn the Astros into a superteam, but it’s at least close. He was crushed by the juiced ball last year, giving up 20 more home runs than his previous career high, and if that’s the new norm, he’s closer to Jeff Samardzija than Max Scherzer. He would be a steady innings-muncher, nothing more.

If the homers were a fluke, though, he’s one of the most talented pitchers in baseball, a perennial threat to improve on his fourth-place Cy Young finish from 2015. He has command, and he has power. He can lead the rotation of a postseason-bound team. As a third starter, he’s kind of absurd. While watching the Astros throughout the postseason, it was easy to be struck by how deep and punishing their lineup was. Now add a co-ace to the co-aces the Astros already had, and it’s pretty danged easy to forget about 2022 and the prospects that it cost them.

This was already a team built to win now. They just became win-nowier.

What the Pirates are thinking

They’ve had two sub-.500 seasons in a row, and a payroll that has always ranked near the bottom of MLB. The Pirates looked at the window, and it had a nasty film covering it. Windex didn’t help. It was time to rebuild, they figured.

That written, I was still much more bullish on their chances than their front office, apparently. When Cole rumors started last season, the conclusion was that the core was still talented enough to give it another try.

They can trade Cole, Nova, Harrison, Polanco, Watson, and everyone else making seven or eight figures, and hope they can sift through the ashes and find the next Cole, Nova, Harrison, Polanco, and Watson.

Watson is already gone, but the idea remains the same. By trading Cole — and, presumably, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and maybe even Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco — the Pirates are kicking the can down the street. They’ll have to spend several painful years looking for the next Cole and McCutchen, and there are certainly no guarantees that they’ll find them. There were decades of sifting through Bryans Bullington and Chads Hermansen, and while that was under a different, sillier regime, there’s always something to be said about the birds in the hand, especially when you remember that the other birds can always be Matt Bush.

Still, a rebuild now is entirely defensible, considering how the team has fared and how unlikely they are to rebuild this current roster through trading prospects or spending money. This isn’t the kind of roster that forces an owner to write a check for Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez to be the final pieces, even if the Pirates had that kind of ownership group, which they don’t. So now they’re trying with Joe Musgrove (controllable starting pitcher), Colin Moran (former sixth-overall pick), Michael Feliz (unproven strikeout machine), and Jason Martin (minor league outfielder) instead of Cole.

If that return seems a little underwhelming, that’s because it’s not just what’s coming back for an All-Star pitcher — it’s what’s coming back for an official white flag. When the White Sox raised their white flag in the Chris Sale trade, they received one of the best prospects in baseball, which allowed the rebuild to start with a little confidence. There was a public-relations benefit to getting Yoan Moncada. While Cole isn’t Sale, and he isn’t that close right now, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been nice to get a shiny top-25 prospect to help placate the fans who will have to adjust to a new reality.

Mostly, what the return for Cole makes me think is that the Pirates blew it by being too cautious while their window was open. There was always room for another established pitcher on their contending rosters, but they were unable or unwilling to spend, and they were left with early postseason exits and a thinner roster that had a tougher time dealing with injuries than, say, the Dodgers or Cubs. Their biggest free-agent signings after returning to relevance in 2013 were Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett, John Jaso, and Daniel Hudson, which were all short-term, duct-tape deals. While there was logic behind each move at the time, it sure didn’t add up to a very imposing cavalry over four years.

Now the core that looked so promising just a couple years ago isn’t likely to stick around for the next contending Pirates team. Cole will be followed out the door by McCutchen and Harrison, and I’d have to guess that they’d rather have prospects for Ivan Nova instead of his bargain efficiency during the rebuilding process. It wouldn’t make sense to trade Cole and stop there, so PirateSmart should stay open for business.

It’s understandable, but it’s also a shame. This was a core that deserved better, and the Pirates had to lose 105 long, painful games for the privilege of drafting Cole with the first overall pick in 2011. He almost got them where first-overall picks are supposed to take their teams.

Almost. And that’s the part that stings the most. Cole was almost the platonic ideal of what a first-overall pick should do for the needy team that drafts him. The Pirates almost got there. It’s the ugly finality that hurts.