They couldn't just be content with what they had.
It's a big move in part because it keeps Cole out of the hands of the Yankees, the team that appears best equipped to challenge the Astros for the AL crown at this point in the offseason. But what it actually does for the Astros is up for debate.
It helps to an extent, no doubt, but Cole had a combined 4.12 ERA and 1.32 WHIP over the past two seasons, recording less than a strikeout per inning. Clearly not ace production. Still, he has answered the bell every fifth day two of the last three years, and there's something to be said for having a bigger stockpile of above-average innings.
But the Astros already had a pretty big one. In fact, looking at the pitchers who may now have to do without, I can't help but wonder if this deal is a net loss for Fantasy owners, provided Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton really are who they were last year.
But how could they be, right? Peacock was written off as a Quadruple-A guy for half a decade. Morton as a back-end pitch-to-contact guy. They just enjoyed their "breakout" seasons at ages 29 and 33, respectively, so why should any of us take them seriously?
Because those two pitchers didn't just get better results. They were completely transformed, the former adopting a slider that quickly became his go-to and one of the best swing-and-miss offerings in baseball and the latter upping his velocity through a concerted effort to miss bats. And because the Astros have a history of this, of mining the data to find potential in pitchers who didn't know what they had. Who had been doing it all wrong. Collin McHugh is another example, having been miscast, like Morton, as a pitch-to-contact guy.
Which brings us back to Cole, a former No. 1 pick in all of baseball. And in 2015, he had numbers befitting of one, going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. So why not since? It's a presumptive question but a fair one given his pedigree and all of the trade interest, and FanGraphs recently offered at least the starting point for an answer, noting that he leans heavily on his fastball, a pitch with average spin and dwindling results. The Astros are one of the teams that relies the least on fastballs at a time when hitters are beginning to catch up to rising velocities across the league and have one pitcher (Lance McCullers) who thrives on throwing his breaking ball 60 percent of the time.
Maybe that's their plan for Cole. Or maybe they've uncovered something completely different. All I know is one of the most pitching-wise organizations in baseball felt like it had to have this guy. I can't imagine they were simply going after the name.
But it doesn't change the fact that, ahem, they already unearthed two gems in Peacock and Morton (not to mention McHugh, who's basically an afterthought in all of this). So isn't this trade overkill? Aren't they wasting the potential they just uncovered?
Here's the thing: For as much as I trust those two -- and as much as I like Peacock in particular, who appears to be the odd man out as the one with the most bullpen experience -- I was never counting on 180 innings from either of them. McCullers, too, seems like a pitcher who, by design, will top out at 140 to 160. Two of the most forward-thinking organizations in baseball, the Astros and the Dodgers, appear to be leading the revolution of no longer asking every pitcher to start every fifth day. Particularly with the rise in velocities, some just aren't equipped for it, and in the spirit of putting each player in the best position to succeed, it's best not even to ask.
Skipped turns, phantom injuries and periodic shifts to the bullpen are all instruments for keeping the innings down and ones I always expected the Astros to employ for McCullers, Morton and Peacock -- except now instead of McHugh being the one to step in, the three will rotate with each other.
It still changes things because now if you draft Peacock, you're left to wonder when (or if) his turn will arise, recognizing that he's unusable in the meantime, and patience in the face of uncertainty is a special kind of torture. He drops considerably in the rankings as a result but still needs to be drafted and remains my top starting pitcher -- if I may call him such -- with relief pitcher eligibility. My point, though, is that his final line may not actually change much with Cole on board.
The Pirates' end of this deal is notable for Fantasy purposes as well, primarily because of what it means for Colin Moran. The sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft who was long vaunted for his bat control started hitting for power last year, which some evaluators feared he never would, but it seemed totally meaningless with Alex Bregman doing his thing in the majors. Now with the Pirates, Moran is free to overtake David Freese or perhaps even platoon with him from the get-go.
Joe Musgrove looked like he'd become a fixture in the Astros rotation just a year ago, and while his performance ultimately cost him that opportunity, he still flashed plenty of potential in 23 relief appearances, many of the multi-inning variety, down the stretch, compiling a 1.44 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Back to starting, he's a player of interest in NL-only leagues, and the same can be said for Michael Feliz, who thrived as a starter in the minors but never got a chance to break through for Houston. Even if he's confined to the bullpen now, he could emerge as the backup option for saves.