Gerrit Cole is currently earning $6.8m and is arbitration eligible next season before becoming a free agent. Cole’s projected 2018 WAR (Fangraphs – Steamer) is 2.6. As of the time of this writing, here are just some of the free agent starting pitchers still available with projected WAR (Fangraphs – Steamer)) and market salary (Spotrac):
Andrew McCutchen is currently earning $14.2m and will become a free agent next year. McCutchen has a projected 2.8 WAR. Here are just some of the free agent outfielders still available with projected WAR and market salary:
There are obviously far more free agents than this, but I’m only utilizing the ones that Spotrac is projecting market value on. I think based on the current market that all the market values projected are actually high. When you look at number and quality of the free agents available, this is a difficult market in which to make a trade. There are obviously comparable and better starting pitchers available than Cole. There are comparable outfielders to McCutchen. Of course, this is all based on one third-party’s projections and ignores potential teams’ internal projections.
The point of this exercise is to highlight a few things. The value of Cole and McCutchen had less to do with their actual play on the field and more to do with what that cost of production on the field is in payroll. Many Pirate fans (including Gerrit Cole) talked of the Houston Astros as being a team will to invest high dollars on improving their club. But, the Astros could have signed starting pitchers better than Gerrit Cole in free agency (Arrieta, Darvish) without giving up any prospects. But, money matters. Payroll matters. Sports and business are always operate by measuring risk and reward. Cole’s salary mitigates the Astros’ risk. McCutchen only having one year left on his deal mitigates the Giants’ risk.
Trading barely known prospects mitigates the risk of fans being upset. Trading for former All Stars is good for public relations. The Astros didn’t win the world series because they were aggressive in free agency. They won because they had a lot prospects all mature and peak at the same time. Most teams attempt this strategy, but only a few are able to pull it off at just the right time to win it all. The Pirates utilized this strategy and made a three-year playoff run. The Pirates recognized they had another group of prospects that have perhaps higher upside than the previous group and the Pirates determined to delay their strategy than trade all their prospects for an all-in strategy.
This is called mitigating their risks. All teams do it in one way or another. To demonize the Pirates while celebrating the Astros is being disingenuous. The Pirates decided to trade their players who came up with the first prospect class to help acquire more to round out their next prospect class. The McCutchen trade certainly deserves scrutiny on the surface. But, I’m not sure how anyone can look at the Gerrit Cole trade and not see it as being a good haul in return considering the market.
There is still plenty of free agent maneuvering to occur and I’m willing to wait to see how the whole thing plays out between now and the start of the season to judge more fully. As it stands now, I am willing to wager the Pirates end up with a better record than the Milwaukee Brewers.