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Looking Back on the Gerrit Cole Trade

We are in the perfect storm of Gerrit Cole buzz. Yankeedom has already insisted that:

1) The Yankees would have been in the World Series had they only traded for Gerrit Cole (likely true) and

2) The Yankees need to sign Cole, no matter the cost (likely untrue).

Sweeny Murti famously initiated a semi-heated exchange with Brian Cashman at the post-season press conference when he asserted that Cashman had “passed” on Cole, among other starters in past years. Cashman was rather prickly in his response.

In any case, both Cole angles are all over the news and the second point above will continue until Gerrit Cole signs. (That second point will then be replaced by the recriminations angle if the Yankees do not sign him).

I thought that it might be interesting to look at the aftermath of the infamous Pirates/Astros trade for Gerrit Cole to see if the Pirates made the right decision by taking the Astros package of prospects rather than the Yankees’ back in 2018 and then to determine what I would have done if I was in Brian Cashman’s shoes at the time.

(After all, if everyone else in Yankeedom is writing about Cole, I would be remiss if I did not jump on the bandwagon.)

In that trade, the Pirates received right-handed starter Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, reliever Michael Feliz and outfielder Jason Martin. First, let me deal with the players that did not bring much value. I’m assuming that the Yankees would have found their own three bags of peanuts to match the lesser players of the trade.

Colin Moran has produced .7 and .1 WAR in 2 seasons with the Pirates. He’s 27. He’s not a great defender, strikes out a bunch, doesn’t walk that much and doesn’t hit for a ton of power. He’s basically a replacement level player (a guy you can get easily and cheaply and is a not very good borderline major league player).

Michael Feliz has been worth .2 and .1 WAR over 2 seasons with the Pirates. He strikes out a ton of batters (11.66/9 in 2019) But walks too many (4.31/9 in 2919). His ground ball rate is rather low at 34.3% in 2019. He is another replacement level player.

Jason Martin is 24 and spent most of 2019 at AAA. In 20 games with the Pirates, he was worth 0.0 WAR. He is likely another replacement level player.

Okay, now that those players are out of the way, let’s talk about Joe Musgrove.

Joe Musgrove was worth 2.2 WAR in 2018 and 3.3 WAR in 2019. His strikeouts at 8.30/9 were very good and his walk rate (2.06/9) was outstanding. He’s still only 26 and could improve a bit. He’s under team control for another 3 years for a total of 5 years for the Pirates. A #2 or #3 starter for five years is quite a nice haul in a trade.

Now let’s look at what could the Pirates have had instead from the Yankees. In this exercise, I’m just going to look at Clint Frazier because that was the headline piece. Frazier has seen limited action with the Yankees, partially because of injuries and partially because the Yankees had a lot of outfield and DH options and Frazier’s famously poor defense made him miss the cut. In any case, Frazier was worth -.1 WAR in 15 games in 2018 and .1 WAR in 69 games in 2019. He struck out a ton in 2019 (28.5% of the time) and only walked 6.5% of the time. He does hit for nice power (.222 isolated power which is slugging percentage minus batting average). Unfortunately, his poor defense and high strikeout rates made his value almost zero in 2019. This could improve if his defense and plate discipline improve. Or it could not if they don’t.

In any case, I’d have to say that the Pirates made the right decision given what the Yankees offered. For the trade headliners, Joe Musgrove has out performed Clint Frazier

The next question to ask is whether Brian Cashman should have thrown in Miguel Andujar to seal the deal. Andujar was worth 2.8 WAR in 2018 despite his fairly wretched defense. And, as we all know, 2019 was a lost year for him. Andujar is under team control for another four years. He’s a very valuable asset and Cashman correctly valued him as such. At the time, I also thought that Frazier was a very valuable asset (he may still be). Also, it must be noted, the Gerrit Cole of January 2018 when the trade was made was not the Gerrit Cole for full seasons of baseball 2018 and 2019 in Houston. Gerrit Cole was just a pitcher with a ton of upside with some questions. There was no way to be sure that he would be the pitcher he became the last two years.

So, while hindsight is always 20/20, I think that Brian Cashman made the correct decision to not trade Frazier and Andujar for Cole. Based on the all the factors, the Yankees would have been giving up a lot.

Of course, things worked out quite well for the Astros. Cole got better, maybe with the help of some Astro statistical magic.

Would I have traded Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar for 2018 and 2019 versions of Gerrit Cole? Would I make that trade if I knew Cole would be worth 6.0 WAR in 2018 and 7.4 WAR in 2019 (13.4 WAR total)?

That is a more challenging question.

At the time, I’d have guessed that Frazier and Andujar would have been worth 24 WAR in total over six years, which is a lot – but you always pay a premium for elite starting pitching. Of course it’s hard to say because I have the benefit of hindsight.

The honest answer is that I’m not sure. But given the information that I had at the time about Frazier and Andujar, I do not think that I would have done it. Even now, with all we know, it seemed like a lot to give up for Gerrit Cole at the time.


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