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Pirates camp report: Youngsters like Cole expected to help turnaround

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Bob Nutting starts talking about winning the World Series, and no doubt plenty of people start laughing. Or sighing.

How about winning more games than you lose?

But the Pirates owner is right.

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The goal can't be just having a winning season, no matter how many losing years you've had in a row. The goal can't be just to end the streak.

The Pirates should be thinking about winning World Series.

And that's where Gerrit Cole comes in.

There's no way to know for sure exactly what Cole will become. There's no way to know for sure how soon he'll become it.

He may not help the Pirates at all this year. Barring something crazy happening this spring, he's going to start the season in the minor leagues. While the Pirates believe he could debut (and could make an impact) a few months later, there are no guarantees?

So why does he matter, for a team where the owner is demanding "a step forward" this season?

Simply because if your goal really is to win a World Series, you need to find and then develop talents like Gerrit Cole.

Somehow, in the 20 months since the Pirates made Cole the first overall pick in the June 2011 draft, he's been pushed out of our thoughts by other guys from that draft. His UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer has already debuted in the big leagues, already been traded and already been raved about.

Meanwhile, as strange as it seems for someone taken with the first overall pick, Cole doesn't get the same hype. Even some of his teammates laugh at the idea that a No. 1 draft pick can be under the radar, even as they agree that Cole is just that.

He probably shouldn't be.

"Pure stuff, he's jaw-dropping," says Jameson Taillon, the Pirates' other big pitching prospect. "I charted him some last year, and you see that 92 mph slider, the 101 mph fastballs ... it's like a video game.

"I think once Gerrit gets his shot, he'll blow people away."

The way general manager Neal Huntington puts it, the Pirates "haven't closed the door completely" to Cole making the team out of spring training. But the Pirates think of themselves now as an organization that is cautious in promoting prospects (as opposed to the one that previously pushed Pedro Alvarez up before he was really ready).

"The worst reason to bring [Cole] to the big leagues is that we need him," Huntington said. "I'd rather be a week too late than a month too early."

Huntington believes in Cole, Taillon and his other prized prospects. The organization believes in the prospects so strongly that the Pirates backed away from a proposed trade for Chase Headley last July, even though the team seemed to need a boost and even though it wasn't going to cost them either Cole or Taillon.

Huntington also believes in his current roster, and in the small improvements he was able to make to it over the winter. He believes in new catcher Russell Martin ("One of our scouts said we didn't just make one position better, we made half the team better"), and he believes in A.J. Burnett and James McDonald and Alvarez and Neil Walker.

"We have a group that's very hungry," Huntington said.

They have a group that for now has one true star (center fielder Andrew McCutchen), and a lot of players who are better than the ones the Pirates had 3-4 years ago.

Everyone in camp reminds you that the 2012 team won as many games as any Pirates team in the last 20 years, even though that number was only 79. Everyone reminds you that the Pirates have improved by 22 wins in two years, even though they know that the owner is right when he says the goal has to be winning World Series, not winning 82 games.

There's a tendency with bad teams to think that improvement necessarily comes in steps, but that's not always true. Years ago, the Braves became a great team overnight, going from last place in 1990 to the World Series in 1991.

More recently, the same thing happened with the Tigers, who had a streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons that ended with a team that went to the World Series.

Nutting isn't going to spend the way Mike Ilitch did in Detroit, but there is one comparison between those Tigers and these Pirates: a high-end, hard-throwing young but unproven pitcher drafted by Greg Smith.

Maybe it's not fair to compare Gerrit Cole to Justin Verlander. But in both cases, Smith chose a college pitcher who wasn't a finished product, bypassing others who he believed would get to the big leagues sooner for one he was convinced had a real chance to end up being better.

"There's some roughness around the edges, and I like that," Smith said. "Because it means there's more in there."

Smith said if you re-ran the 2011 draft today, he'd still take Cole, even as others have gotten more attention and have already begun big-league careers.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "I haven't wavered at all."

Cole himself admits he notices the other guys in his draft class. He and Bauer were college teammates, but they were never particularly close.

"I don't think we focus on each other very much," Cole said.

He knows Bauer and others have had higher profiles. He should also know that Verlander didn't have the highest profile in his draft class in the months before he debuted as the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year.

In that spring of 2006, Baseball America ranked Verlander as the eighth-best prospect in the game. He was third among pitching prospects, behind Francisco Liriano and Chad Billingsley.

This week, Baseball America released its 2013 prospect rankings. Cole was seventh.

Verlander ended that 2006 season in the World Series.

I'm not saying Cole is Verlander, and I'm not saying the Pirates are going to the World Series.

But getting the most out of talent like Gerrit Cole is the way they could get there.

 
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