Will Gerrit Cole ever be an Ace?

I had heard a lot of varied opinions about Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Gerrit Cole over the last couple years so I was glad of the chance to finally lay eyes on him live this week. It’s clear he has tremendous stuff and a talented arm. Whether Cole ever becomes the kind of pitcher who can lead the Pirates staff back to the playoffs or not remains to be seen.

The Breakdown

Cole was very much on the national radar coming out of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. The Yankees drafted him with the 28th overall pick in 2008, but Cole wanted to go to college. He didn’t sign after brief negotiations with New York. Cole immediately took over Friday night duties for the UCLA Bruins as a freshman. Despite dominating stuff, Cole never really dominated college competition like scouts expected to see. The Bruins did make the finals of the College World Series in 2010, but lost to Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Cole became a 1st round pick for the second time when he was taken first overall by Pittsburgh in 2011. The top of that 2011 Draft was loaded with talents like Danny Hultzen, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Trevor Bauer and Anthony Rendon among others. Some talent evaluators preferred Cole’s UCLA teammate Bauer, but by no means was Pittsburgh’s choice seen as a “reach.” The Pirates gave the pitcher a then-record $8m bonus. Cole debuted as a pro in the Arizona Fall League later that year. By the end of 2012 he had climbed all the way to Triple-A Indianapolis. The performance so far is very good… but still not up to the level of Cole’s raw stuff or the expectations that come with being taken first overall.

The tall right-hander has a near ideal build for a pitcher. He’s big, long, strong and athletic. Cole possesses elite arm speed and uses it to sit at premium velocities with his fastball. When I saw him Cole worked mostly 93-96 mph with his fastball while touching higher and I didn’t get the regular high 90’s numbers I was hoping to see on my gun. It’s possible I just caught him on a bad day though, and I’ve had many reports of triple digits. The four seam has some late life and his low 90’s two seam has even more arm side run and sink when thrown low in the zone. The best secondary is a plus power slider thrown in the mid 80’s with strong late break and very tight spin. The pitch did lose shape at times and he would lose feel for it, too. He mixed in a slower 11-5 curve as a second breaking pitch but the slider is a better offering. Cole showed a very effective change up at times, but would frequently throw it too hard. All of his pitches flash plus or better but he often doesn’t stay on top of them and that causes them to flatten out.

Another factor that makes Cole more hittable than you’d assume is that he gives batters a real clean look at the ball early in his delivery. There’s not a lot of natural deception here. He does have some trouble repeating his delivery, too. His lead shoulder opens up early or late making him rush or slow down his arm and this moves his release point around. Cole is also prone to landing on a stiff front leg and thus he quite often finishes up with his delivery. Despite these issues, his overall control is not awful… but command of all his pitches can be a problem. That is to say he generally works around the strike zone but tends to miss spots and leave pitches up or in bad spots. This is a player who is athletic enough to resolve and overcome these issues, but that has been the hope for a while now. Cole also seemed easily rattled on the mound by calls that went against him. His pitchability is a work in progress and he’s not at all efficient with how he sets up hitters. Cole gets a little too fine trying to miss bats and strike out batters. This sounds like a lot of negatives… don’t miss the forest for the trees here: despite how raw his game is and his flaws, this is still one of the most talented arms in the minors.

The Path to Playing Time

The Pirates organization has actually done a pretty good job filling in their rotation this season, but one would think they would be able to find room for a pitcher with Cole’s talent. When he will be ready is a different discussion. Cole has only 180 total innings as a professional and could benefit from further time in the minors to figure things out and polish his game. Is the stuff good enough now that he could succeed in the majors? I’d say so. He could help now to some degree, but unless the team gets desperate he’s got plenty to work on in Triple-A, too.

  • On 40 Man Roster: No
  • Options Remaining: 3

What to Expect

You just can’t bet against stuff like this, but I do have serious concerns. This is a power arm with front line raw stuff. Cole already has the qualities of a #1 starter that you can’t teach. Now he just needs to 1) smooth out some mechanical issues (timing, lead shoulder and stiff front leg); 2) tighten up his command and control; and 3) learn how to attack hitters and sequence better.

The bottom line here is that it’s very possible these things don’t happen and Cole is never more than a #3 starter. I think you’ll find your share of talent evaluators that don’t really believe in Cole. I’ve certainly encountered some of that. At this point I’m not comfortable projecting him as an Ace off what I’ve seen and the reviews I’ve gotten from others. Personally I’m projecting Cole to perform as a #2 starter or maybe even just a high end #3. The potential is there for this pitcher to be one of the very best starters in the game, but a lot of things have to improve for it to happen. Although it would be a major disappointment, scouts have mentioned to me that he’d fit great out of the bullpen and I’ll agree with that as well.

  • Mixed League Value: Strong. Cole shouldn’t have trouble missing bats. This stuff and velocity will play against big leaguers. Early in his career the results won’t match the stuff and there will be some rough starts.
  • NL Only League Value: Very Strong. Same reasons as above but in a limited player pool. There is extra appeal in the fact you get more upside here than with some pitchers who might give you similar results.
  • Ottoneu Value: Fairly well rounded skill set and great upside makes him a young player to target but I wouldn’t overpay right now.

JD Sussman discussed Cole recently along with Jamie Taillon as one of his top 5 pitching prospect duos.

Thanks for reading -AS

Thanks to Bill Wanless and the Pawtucket Red Sox for courtesies extended

Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.

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9 years ago

Something about him reminds me of Brad Penny.

Pat G
9 years ago
Reply to  Huisj

brad penny, aj burnett, little yovani gallardo…

stuff is strong in a vacuum. there is more to pitching than the quality of your individual pitches.

9 years ago
Reply to  Huisj

Its the leg kick — put 20lbs around the mid-section and you’re looking at Penny

9 years ago
Reply to  Huisj

Yeah, it’s a combo of the leg motion, the shape of his rear end, his posture as he plants his foot, the socks, and the sometimes-there-sometimes-not facial hair. But the socks have a lot to do with it.