Williams: Comparing the Returns in the Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer Deals

In the last six months, the Pirates have traded one top of the rotation pitcher away and have traded for one top of the rotation pitcher.

They sent Gerrit Cole to the Astros prior to the season, getting Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin in return.

At the trade deadline, they acquired Chris Archer in exchange for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz.

The immediate reaction was to compare the returns on both deals. The Pirates sent out a top of the rotation guy and got one back, so the returns on both deals should be similar, right? It’s a bit more complicated than that.

I took a look at the trade values for each pitcher, trying to only focus on what we knew at the time, and ignoring any results since the trade. The best way to do that was to take the average WAR of the previous three seasons to get an expectation for the upcoming years.

Cole had an average 3.7 fWAR, with a 5.5 in 2015, a 2.5 in 2016, and a 3.1 in 2017. Using that figure at $9 M per WAR, and salaries of $6.8 M and $9 M in his final two years, Cole ended up with a $50.8 M trade value.

Archer had an average WAR of 4.0 from 2015 through the trade deadline this year, taking the average of 3.67 seasons. He had a 5.2 fWAR in 2015, 3.2 in 2016, 4.6 in 2017, and a 1.7 prior to the deadline this year. He’s under control through 2021, owed $27.5 M over the next three years, assuming all of his options are picked up, and that’s a safe assumption. His value from the time of the trade ended up at $83.6 M.

Looking at those numbers, Archer was going to have a bigger trade value than Cole simply because the Pirates were getting Archer for one year and two months extra. The WAR numbers were pretty close, and the salaries were low for both pitchers. If all things were even, you could expect them to get the same return. But that’s not how trade values work, with teams paying a premium for extra years of control.

There have been factors that distort the trade values since the moves, both in terms of the types of return that each team received, and how the players have performed.

One of the arguments against Archer right now is that his value has gone down since 2015. That’s true if you only look at ERA, and a WAR ranking that is based on ERA. But Archer’s numbers were better than Cole in 2016 and 2017. He’s down this year prior to the trade, but the stuff is still there to show that he’s capable of still being a top of the rotation guy, and that’s how he was treated at the deadline.

Meanwhile, Cole had been declining the last two years, and I believe that’s due to his pitch usage with the Pirates. He was throwing too many fastballs, and has now switched to throwing more breaking stuff, which is leading to much better results in Houston. By the time the Archer trade happened, Cole was looking like he did in 2015, and possibly better.

That improvement for Cole impacted the view of the trade. The Astros weren’t trading for this version of Cole. They weren’t paying for this version of Cole. They got him at a lower value than his current value, and found a way to get him back to where he was at his best. The Pirates are well familiar with this approach, as they’ve done it many times over the years with guys like A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, J.A. Happ, and Ivan Nova, among others.

The hope for the Pirates is that Archer will get back to pitching like a top of the rotation guy. He hasn’t yet in a small sample of starts following the deadline, and that has Pirates fans worried. But it’s way too soon to be worried about Archer, especially with the stuff he has been showing, and some of the unfortunate hits and runs he’s allowed in spite of throwing good pitches.

The returns of the trades saw some differences as well, which have altered the view of the deals, especially with the results since the deals. The Pirates had a lower upside return, but got three guys who could help in the majors right away, along with a projectable guy in the lower levels.

Colin Moran has been replacement level so far at third base. Michael Feliz looked like he was going to be a solid late inning guy for a few months, but had a bad downturn and now finds himself in Triple-A. Joe Musgrove has been working out well, and looks like a solid starter to pitch behind the top guys. Jason Martin has seen an increase in his prospect status, but still has some question marks about his future in the majors, especially with a recent slump.

I wouldn’t count Moran, Feliz, or Martin out just yet. Moran is in his age 25 season, and his first full year in the majors, so I wouldn’t say he can’t improve. Feliz is a bit frustrating because he’s put up these numbers for 137 games over four seasons now, while showing better stuff than the numbers would indicate. And Martin is like any other prospect where he has question marks and things to work on in the minors, with his future value not yet in focus.

But those three illustrate the current problem with the trade. The Pirates need them to work out, or at least just one of them. Because even if Joe Musgrove works out, I think anyone would want Gerrit Cole for two seasons — even at his pre-trade value — over just having Musgrove working out for five seasons.

On the flip side, the Rays got Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz. It’s almost a better version of the Pirates’ trade. You’ve got a young hitter with limited MLB time and a lot of upside if his power can translate over to the majors (Meadows vs Moran). You’ve got a pitcher who has pitched in the majors in the bullpen and briefly as a starter, and the new team is trying him out in the rotation (Glasnow vs Musgrove). And then you’ve got a prospect with some upside, but some question marks to go with that upside (Baz vs Martin).

In each of those cases, I’d take the guys the Pirates traded away over the guys they got in return. That makes sense though, as Archer should have cost more than Cole and should have landed better players, considering the trade values.

The early returns for the Rays look good, with Meadows hitting for a .327/.357/.692 line, and Glasnow looking lights out in 12 innings. Just like Archer’s small sample size, I wouldn’t draw conclusions from this, especially with Glasnow, since he’s doing the same stuff he was doing in Pittsburgh, and I think we’d need a much bigger sample to see if he has figured it out this time. But those early returns, plus the poor returns for the Cole trade, definitely impact the views of the deals.

The end result is that these were two different trades, and comparing them is very complex, as the years of control and values of each pitcher heading into the deals were much different. The comparisons do show what the Pirates need from each deal though.

In the Cole trade, they got guys who were closer to the majors, and they need those guys to produce to justify the deal, similar to what the Rays are seeing in a small sample from Meadows and Glasnow. Right now they’re getting production from Musgrove, but the Pirates need at least one of Moran, Feliz, or Martin to step up to make this trade worthwhile.

For the Archer trade, it’s really not going to matter what they gave up if Archer pitches like a top of the rotation guy for the next three seasons. Even if the guys from the Astros trade were performing, the Astros probably wouldn’t regret the deal for Cole with his results, and based on the fact that the Astros didn’t really need the guys they sent out. The Pirates are in the same situation. They’ve got enough depth that they won’t really miss the guys they sent away. However, they’re only going to get to a point where you don’t even think about those guys if Archer pitches up to his potential and leads the rotation for the next few years.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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