Gerrit Cole move sound financially for Pirates


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Washington Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg didn't start the 2010 season with the big club, making his major league debut June 8. Perhaps you remember the night. Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates and allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings in a 5-2 win. Nationals Park was electric. The standing-room-only crowd of 40,315 knew it was watching a once-in-a-generation player.

Bryce Harper -- the Nationals' other can't-miss star -- didn't start the 2012 season in the big leagues, making his debut April 28. He went 1 for 3 with a double and RBI in a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went on to become National League rookie of the year.

I'm thinking it's OK if Gerrit Cole doesn't join the Pirates until June even though the team has a screaming need for him right now in its rotation.

If we're talking strictly baseball, Cole would be the Pirates' No. 3 starter behind veterans A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, certainly no worse than No. 4 behind James McDonald, who was terrific in the first half last season and terrible in the second. Cole, even with just two Triple-A appearances on his bubblegum card, was impressive this spring and is better than the fragile Jeff Karstens, who is hurt again and probably is headed to the disabled list. Cole also is better than Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Jeanmar Gomez. Two of those four likely will be in the rotation when the team breaks camp later this week.

Good luck to the Pirates with that.

But it isn't strictly a baseball conversation with Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. It's never just about baseball with the Pirates. Business always is a factor, usually the overriding factor.

Talking business now, the Pirates made the right decision March 18 to send Cole to their minor league camp. They are right not to re-consider the decision to have him start the season at Class AAA Indianapolis because of Karstens' shoulder problem.

Cole likely does need the work in Triple-A after just two appearances late last season. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has pointed that out many times. He has said Cole needs to be more consistent. The Pirates want to get Cole to the point that, when he gets to the big leagues, he will be successful.

But that's not the real reason it makes sense for Cole to start at Indianapolis. He won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season -- rather than 2018 -- if he spends a couple of weeks there. He won't be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2016 season -- rather than 2015 -- if he stays down until sometime in June. Cole is a client of agent Scott Boras, who is the best at getting every last dollar for his players and surely won't give the Pirates any breaks with Cole. Delaying Cole's major league clock is the only way the team has of fighting back.

This was an easy call for the Pirates, just as it probably was easy for the Nationals with Strasburg and Harper. Just about everyone in baseball says Cole is going to be a star. Having him for a few months now with the big club isn't worth the financial savings for a franchise with a light budget. Certainly, a few weeks now aren't worth losing him as a free agent a year early.

You might not like it, but that's baseball reality in 2013.

What's offensive is that Huntington has insisted the Cole decision wasn't based on money. It's nice to think he said that because he had to say it. There's no way he can believe it or think that we believe it. He might not be a great baseball man, but he's not that naive. He knows Pirates fans don't want to hear about business after watching their team lose for 20 consecutive years.

Huntington might not even have made the Cole decision. Chances are it came from above, from Pirates president Frank Coonelly or even owner Bob Nutting. They are bottom-line people, not baseball people. You would think Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle want Cole right now. Their jobs are on the line. They need the team to win this season.

Cole or Sanchez?

Cole or McPherson?

You get the idea.

It looks like it's going to be another losing season for the Pirates because of the lame rotation -- with or without Cole. Look at the other teams in their division. The Pirates starters don't match up. The Cincinnati Reds have the best rotation with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake. The St. Louis Cardinals, though losing free agent Kyle Lohse, remain strong with Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn. The Milwaukee Brewers added Lohse on Monday to a rotation that includes Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers. Lohse, who went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA last season, agreed to a three-year, $33 million contract. That's the kind of deal the Pirates never make.

Help should come later in the spring for the Pirates, but, by then, it probably will be too late. Francisco Liriano is expected to be ready sometime in May, Charlie Morton perhaps in June. Cole will be here at some point in June.

Until then, you're going to have to live with the fact the Pirates aren't going to rush Cole. For his sake, sure. But mostly for theirs.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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