Not this season, at least.
I was in Pittsburgh for a wedding over Memorial Day weekend. Twelve-minute ceremony, pulled pork sliders during the cocktail hour, and Crown Royal at the bar. These people knew how to get married.
When people found out what I did for a living, the first question out of every one of their mouths was, “When is Gerrit Cole getting called up?” Even people who weren’t really baseball fans knew of Cole and asked me about him. By the end of the night, I had developed a standard answer – “Not until the Pirates need him.”
Which is not the answer I would have thought I’d be saying a few months ago.
The combination of the Pirates’ pitching success and Cole’s ability to be frustratingly average has created a scenario in which he could spend more time in Triple-A this season than we originally expected. After cruising through High-A and Double-A last season, Cole was thought to need only enough time in Triple-A to get him past the Super-2 barrier, a gray deadline that should be approaching in the next few weeks. Even if he didn’t dominate Triple-A, he’d probably be a better option than most of the Pirates’ current starters. After all, this is a rotation that began the year with Jonathan Sanchez in it.
But then something funny happened, as it so often does in baseball. The Pirates began playing very well, and their success is being spearheaded by their starting rotation.
Sanchez was incredibly even worse than expected, and things have gone all sorts of wrong for James McDonald, who is currently rehabbing in Double-A, but A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have done their A.J. and Wandy-type things this season, giving stability to the top of the rotation. Rookie Jeff Locke, with his 5-1 record, has been doing a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors act as indicated by his triple-slash line of 2.45/4.27/4.30, but there’s no reason he can’t pitch in the back of their rotation, even once regression kicks in.
Then it got even weirder.
Francisco Liriano came off the DL and began answering the great “what-if” question of what would happen if he didn’t walk five batters per game. The answer is about what we’ve expected—he’s freaking un-hittable. It’s only been three starts for Liriano, whose wheels could fall off at any point, but the only other two seasons in which he walked this few batters he was either an All-Star or received Cy Young votes.
Which means if all of this continues, or even if it only continues to about 75 percent of its current effectiveness, the Pirates rotation only has one spot left in it for Cole, and there’s a line to get in the door.
Jeanmar Gomez has been astonishingly good, but his track record suggests that it’s more of a mirage than anything else. Still, as long as he keeps turning in quality starts, manager Clint Hurdle is going to keep sending him out there. Returning to action soon could be injured starters Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens. Morton is almost ready to return from the Tommy John surgery he had last June. At some point this summer, he’s going to be able to get back on the mound, likely limiting Gomez’s shelf life. Karstens could beat Morton back to the mound; he’s been out this season with shoulder discomfort, but is rehabbing his way back as well.
All of which gives the Pirates little reason to promote Cole.
It would be one thing if Cole was dominating in Triple-A, but his performance this season has been frustrating at best and at times, downright poor. His strikeout rate has dropped to a career-low 6.5 per nine and he’s had three starts in which he failed to reach the fifth inning due to pitch count restrictions and another in which he allowed eight earned runs. The most frustrating part with Cole continues to be that he fails to dominate despite plus-stuff, similar to Burnett when he was a young pitcher with the Marlins.
It was expected that Cole would be joining the Pirates pitching staff sometime in the next few weeks, but with their current rotation having success, a number of veterans returning soon, and Cole’s struggles, it looks like that timetable has been pushed back. Much can change, of course. Cole could begin to dominate once again—after all, the talent hasn’t gone anywhere—and, as the Dodgers have shown us this season, pitching depth can disappear in a hurry. But for now, the mid-June promotion we all expected appears to be further off on the horizon.