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Cole the Pirates' great, big hope

Gerrit Cole, the Pirates' 22-year-old designated wunderkind, became the first pitcher for any team ever to beat Cy Young winners in each of the first two major-league starts of his career, an astounding and interesting note delivered by the Elias Sports Bureau.

Something even more unbelievable: The Pirates expect more from Cole. And what's more, the Pirates expect better.

Yep, those Pittsburgh Pirates, who suddenly have standards.

There's a new feel around the Pirates these days, where the team hasn't posted a winning record since a skinny positional phenom named Barry Bonds left town more than two decades ago. The Pirates winning half their games has to be the most obvious goal of any team in baseball, yet it's rarely if ever mentioned.

They want more, much more.

The now 41-29 Pirates, who are in a genuine contending position into late June for maybe the second time PB (Post Bonds), speak only about the postseason. They don't talk about .500.

In the same spirit, Pirates people aren't exactly gushing over what looks like a boffo beginning for Cole, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2011 draft only two years out of UCLA, and one of a few reasons the Pirates' future looks a lot better than their recent past. Cole was beating Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke in his first two starts, and people in the Pirates' organization were thinking that he has to be better.

That's something different for them.

The Pirates, who have lived about the most real existence of any team going, are probably just being realistic about Cole's beginning. If you looked closely, Cole got past the Giants and Dodgers on velocity, adrenaline, enthusiasm and competitiveness. He only lasted 12 innings. And, despite hitting 99 mph on the gun, he struck out only three batters.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander, who was the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in the 2011 draft, had his monster fastball for both games, but little else. Still, he got by, and that's a positive sign in itself.

The Pirates don't want folks getting carried away, as they are all dying to do around the Steel City. Cole became only the fifth Pirates pitcher in 50 years to win his first two big-league starts against anyone, never mind any Cy guys. So you can imagine how hungry they are there.

“I'm trying to rein in the hyperbole train,'' said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.

That's very likely a losing battle when it comes to Cole. The city that's craving a baseball winner might finally have the ace it wants.

As for the team, the expectations don't match the goals just yet. The fans have been burned before.

Even so, the Pirates don't want to just skate by (though that would represent an improvement). They want to compete. They want to be a threat, even to the big boys of their division, the Cardinals and Reds. And they want to win rings.

“Our focus has always been to get to the playoffs and win the World Series,'' Huntington said.

It's great for them that their dynamic center fielder Andrew McCutchen finally appears far from alone in the Pirates lineup, that strikeout-prone slugger Pedro Alvarez may at last be unleashing the key to more contact and fewer whiffs, that free-agent pickup Russell Martin looks like the stabilizing force they so badly needed behind the plate and that a vast majority of the 11 starting pitchers they've had to use so far have given the Pirates a chance, or more.

Cole is the great hope, though, and Huntington gets that.

But Huntington looked much more closely at Cole's initial outings than others, and he isn't celebrating just yet. Sure, it was nice that Cole walked not a single batter in either start. But Huntington looked for dominance, and he didn't see it yet. He sought staying power, and he didn't see that, either.

He spied the curveball, slider and changeup that are supposed to make Cole a four-pitch stud, and he rarely saw them, at least not at their best. He witnessed Cole getting wins on guts, guile, and most importantly, a mid-to-high 90s 4-seam fastball and low-90s two-seamer.

“No question we're going to have to get his secondary stuff going for him to have sustained success,'' Huntington said. “He's got more than enough fastball to be able to get by. He'll be able to survive until advance scouts say, “Sit dead red.'''

Cole can make it, as Huntington noted, as a one-pitch pitcher. But he can't become the star they envision -- not like this.

As far as Huntington is concerned, they should consider that No. 1 pick a success only if Cole fulfills their hope that he can be a No. 1 pitcher at the major-league level. And that when you take a pitcher No. 1 overall, Huntington said, you should expect that pitcher to become a No. 1 (never mind that a previous Pirates regime once took the forgettable Bryan Bullington No. 1 overall, or fairly, that not one pitcher who's ever been picked No. 1 overall has proven yet to become perennial ace).

“We've got some work to do for him to become the guy we expect he can be,'' Huntington said.

The key to Cole's two big wins was not Cole at all, the GM suggested. Sure, he showed two attention-grabbing types of fastballs. But Cole only flashed a rare effective breaking ball, and barely managed a changeup at all. The key, according to Huntington, was that “we swung the bat and supported him.''

What's more, Huntington suggested he still isn't even sure they made the right call to summon Cole from Triple-A. Though other folks had been clamoring for Cole for weeks, suggesting the Pirates were only holding him back to set back his arbitration clock, as teams will do, Huntington saw him get peppered in three out of four starts in Triple A, saw signs of the inconsistent secondary stuff.

“We're getting hammered,'' Huntington said, “and I would argue he's still only on the front edge of the readiness clock.''

“In a perfect world,'' the GM said, “he still would have had time in Triple A.''

Nobody lives in a perfect world, least of all the Pirates, who are lugging around the saddest recent history in modern professional sports -- a two-decade stretch of failed draft picks, bad trades, missed opportunities and second-half collapses.

They'll never be seen as big spenders, but they have invested much more heavily and wisely in recent drafts. The days of passing on Matt Wieters in the draft to take a budget-saving, velocity-losing reliever are long gone.

But understandably, some bad feelings linger. And it's no shocker some have wondered, suggested even, that the Pirates were manipulating the clock. It's an odd coincidence that many of the biggest prospects came up sometime in mid June, when it was safe to assume “super two'' arbitration status was no longer a possibility.

Huntington says no, that Cole wasn't quite ready. And he's still completely not sure he is.

If it wasn't really about the money and they were just being careful with Cole, it's understandable. Why take a chance? They've waited this long for a winner, after all.

So why risk the future? The Pirates view Cole and see a pitcher with stuff and guts, cool and smarts. They look at him and see the mother lode.

How confident is this kid?

Cole loved the Yankees growing up in an exclusive Orange County, Calif. neighborhood, but wouldn't even let the major's most storied franchise make an offer after they picked him No. 28 overall as a high school senior. Word was he wanted to attend UCLA, but the Yankees, figuring they'd never have a shot at such a talent so late, sought to tempt him. Didn't work. Parents Mark and Sharon are extremely secure financially, and all the Coles collectively decided never to entertain an offer.

The Yankees were the one team he might have considered since he'd followed them closely and heard how well the development program was run. But ultimately, he couldn't pass up college.

Cole is the prototype, both in body and mind. There's nothing not to like.

“He has the size and strength, athleticism, aptitude and stuff to project to be a No. 1 starter,'' Huntington said, allowing himself a brief ride on the hyperbole train.

When Huntington answered a question about all the moves they made that are working, from Martin to Melancon to all the guys in middle relief, and he said, “We've done good things on many small fronts,'' it sounded like feint praise for them.

But it's probably fair.

The Pirates are a nice story now. They've made some helpful moves to rescue themselves from oblivion.

But it's fair to say, as Huntington suggested, that they very likely need more than incremental improvements. They don't need another middle-rung starter. They need an ace. With Cole, that's their charge, and their challenge. It's fair to say the Pirates still need a big one to come in. That could be Cole.

 
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