BRADENTON, Fla. -- The start of the Gerrit Cole era in Pittsburgh will have to wait -- most likely a few months -- and that doesn't make the top prospect too happy.
Cole was disappointed to learn Monday he had been reassigned to minor league camp. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011 was convinced he pitched well enough this spring to earn more serious consideration for a spot in the Pirates rotation.
But Cole, 22, has a few things working against him, most notably roster rules that would allow the Pirates to delay his free agency by an entire year if they postpone his major league debut by one month. The Pirates also could delay his arbitration eligibility if they wait until late May or early June, a financially advantageous move for the ballclub.
"Everybody's going to speculate why he's being sent out, and they're wrong," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's being sent out because, in our minds, he's not ready to compete and be successful at the major league level."
In three Grapefruit League outings, Cole went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA. He struck out seven and allowed eight hits in 10 innings. He also pitched dominantly in an exhibition game against Team Spain, striking out six and allowing two hits in six innings.
"I really worked hard here, and I put together a lot of good outings, especially if I didn't have my stuff," he said. "I tried to give them a lot of opportunities to not make this decision. But in the end, it still happened."
When asked if he believed his service time played an issue in the team's decision, Cole hesitated, then deferred.
"Maybe somebody else has a better idea about that," he said.
By waiting, the Pirates ensure Cole will not be a free agent until after the 2019 season. Had he started the season in the majors, he likely would have become a free agent after 2018.
The front office has taken a conservative approach with the development of its prospects, burned in the past by rushing some players through the system. Huntington said Cole still has some issues to fix before he is ready for his major league debut.
Huntington said Cole needs to work on consistency of his delivery, command of his pitches and control of his emotions. He also needs to improve his secondary pitches, which compliment a dominant fastball.
"The track record of professional pitchers with less than 200 innings that have gotten in the big leagues is about a 50/50 hit rate," Huntington said. "And some of those guys are high picks like Gerrit."
Cole pitched 132 innings in 2012, his first year of professional baseball. He posted a 2.80 ERA between Class A Bradenton, Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis.
"[Class AAA] hitters are going to make him work," Huntington said. "They're going to set him up. They're going to jump him. Major league hitters are going to do the same thing to him, except they're better."
Baseball America ranked Cole as the Pirates' top prospect and the No. 7 overall prospect in the game.
In addition to reassigning Cole, the Pirates optioned right-handed pitcher Phil Irwin to Class AAA Indianapolis and reassigned four others to minor league camp: right-handed pitchers Brooks Brown and Kyle Waldrop, left-handed pitcher Kris Johnson and catcher Ali Solis.
Irwin, who is on the 40-man roster, had a strong enough spring that the Pirates could turn to him to make a spot start or to help in a long-relief situation at some point in the season.
"We've told him that he sped up his time frame, and we're very pleased with what he's done in spring training," Huntington said. "We believe he's going to help us at some point this spring or summer."
With the moves, the Pirates have 43 players remaining in major league spring training -- 21 pitchers, 11 infielders, 7 outfielders and 4 catchers.mobilehome - pirates
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published March 19, 2013 4:00 AM