PNC Park will be a madhouse on Tuesday night when Gerrit Cole, the Pittsburgh Pirates' top prospect, makes his major league debut against Tim Lincecum and the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Pirates fans have been waiting a long time to see the top pick of the 2011 draft toe the rubber in a game that counts for their hometown team. And he will be joining a competitive club, as Pittsburgh currently sits 11 games above .500 (37-26) and in the thick of the National League playoff race.
Cole, whom many expected to be a part of the rotation to start the season, has been outstanding with Triple-A Indianapolis this season, as noted by B/R's Jason Martinez:
#Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole will make his major league debut on Tuesday. He has a 2.91 ERA in 12 AAA starts. Hasn't allowed a run in last 19 IP— Jason Martinez (@mlbdepthcharts) June 8, 2013
Fairly or unfairly, Cole's performance this year is only going to raise what are already incredibly high expectations of the right-handed phenom.
Here's how I see things playing out for Cole, both on Tuesday night and throughout the season.
His Major League Debut
Despite all the hype, it's important to remember that Cole is only 22 years old—and that he's human. He's going to be nervous.
It's unavoidable, as his pitching coach at Indianapolis, Tom Filer, who spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues, explained to Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
There ain't nothing that can prepare you for your first game. I don't care what they say. There's nothing out there.
I was pitching for the Cubs in my hometown of Philadelphia. I just remember Bobby Dernier being up first and I was just telling myself, "Let it go." I'm not sure what he did, but all I know is I let it go as hard as I could.
(Dernier grounded out to second base.)
Everyone in attendance, from the fans to the press and the players, know this to be true. So even if Cole has a rough first inning, nobody's going to panic. He will settle down as the game wears on.
What should we expect from him over the course of the game?
While every pitcher is different and every game unique, perhaps we can gain some insight from how the six pitchers who were selected first overall in their respective drafts before Cole fared in their debuts.
|Team||Draft Yr.||Debut Yr.||IP||H||ER||BB||K|
Of those six, only Benson and Strasburg started their debut games; the rest came out of the bullpen.
For Cole's debut, I expect something closer to Benson's performance than Strasburg's for two reasons.
First, he's going up against the defending World Series champions, a team with a formidable lineup full of quality hitters. But more importantly, while Cole throws heat, his strikeout rate is significantly lower from a season ago, while his walk rate has increased.
His final stat line on the night: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 6 K.
A quality performance that will give the Pirates a chance to win, but it is sure to be below the expectations of many in attendance.
The Next Month
Gerrit Cole is not going to become a regular member of Pittsburgh's starting rotation for the rest of the season—and his time with the Pirates this time around is going to be short-lived.
Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington alluded to that being the case on his weekly radio show (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
There's certainly discomfort because in an ideal world, it is probably a little early. There are still some things he needs to work on. The worst reason you can bring a prospect to the major leagues is because of a need, and we've been able to avoid that until now.
[The question] is not "Is he ready to be a big leaguer?" It's "Is he ready to contribute to a playoff caliber team?"
Huntington makes an excellent point that is worthy of a second mention: Cole is here because injuries to other members of the rotation—not subpar performance—have created that need.
Jeanmar Gomez, Jeff Karstens, Phil Irwin and James McDonald are all on the disabled list, while Wandy Rodriguez is dealing with tightness in his left forearm. With McDonald already on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis, the clock is ticking on Cole's eventual return to the farm.
While Cole is unquestionably a more talented pitcher than any of the four starters the Pirates currently have on the disabled list, the team is not going to jettison one of them in favor of keeping Cole around—at least not yet.
August and Everything After (in 2013)
In each of the past two seasons, we've seen Pittsburgh look like it was poised to end its incredibly long playoff drought, only to collapse down the stretch.
Whether the Pirates make a move at the trade deadline or not, when Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle feel things beginning to slip away again, Cole will be back. Worth adding is that Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe speculates Pittsburgh will make a run at Houston's Bud Norris.
This time, it will be for good—and the results will be better than his first stint with the team.
Not only will Cole return to action for Pittsburgh in August, but he will accomplish something that hasn't been done by a Pittsburgh pitcher since Tim Wakefield started Game 6 of the 1992 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves: Cole will win a playoff game.
His final numbers on the season? A 5-4 record and 3.65 ERA in a dozen starts.
The Bottom Line
It goes without saying that Gerrit Cole is the future in Pittsburgh, and it's inconceivable to imagine that he won't be the one getting the ball on Opening Day in 2014.
But for 2013, it's all about continuing his development and smoothing out the edges in his game. The last thing the Pirates can afford is to have their top prospect's confidence be shattered by running him out there every fifth day when he's not 100 percent prepared to succeed in prime time.
The future is bright in Pittsburgh, and giving Cole some exposure to major league lineups this season will pay off in the long run, both for the team and for Cole.