The 2012 MLB Draft had quite a few successes in the early rounds (and even some in the later rounds). The Houston Astros hit on both of their first-round picks and even on some of their later picks (Brett Phillips, Rays WS hero, was a 6th-round pick of the Astros in this draft). There were 11 All-Stars selected in the first round and supplemental first round. Also, current Saints QB Jameis Winston was drafted in the 15th round by the Texas Rangers.
The best player in the 2012 draft by bWAR thus far is Carlos Correa. Not far behind him is Corey Seager (again, by bWAR only) and following Seager is Marcus Stroman to round out the top 3 players in the class. WAR for pitchers is a weird stat that I feel doesn’t properly value pitchers, but by comparing all of the pitchers in the draft by the same metric (bWAR), Stroman still leads his class, which is partially due to his early major league debut. There are other pitchers drafted early that are entering their peak performance years at the major league level, like Lucas Giolito, Jose Berrios, Max Fried, and Lance McCullers, but none have produced at the same consistent level as Stroman.
One pick that I think the Pirates would definitely like to have back is their 8th overall selection. With the 8th overall pick, the Pirates selected Mark Appel out of Stanford. Appel has already been written about in a “What If” story, so I won’t detail his story further. He didn’t sign with the Pirates and thus the Pirates received a compensatory pick that would end up becoming the 9th overall pick in the 2013 draft. This will be important later.
So, instead of the Pirates drafting Appel, let’s say they draft Marcus Stroman. Stroman made his major league debut in 2014, accumulating a 3.65 ERA/2.84 FIP/104 ERA+ across 130.2 innings. The Pirates pitching was strong in 2014, with Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano heading the rotation. But Stroman would have been an upgrade over the 3rd, 4th, or 5th starters in that rotation, as Charlie Morton (3.72/3.72/97), Gerrit Cole (3.65/3.23/99), and Jeff Locke (3.91/4.37/92) all pitched a little worse overall than Stroman.
Over the course of a season, I don’t know if the upgrade from Stroman over Locke or Morton is enough to make up for the Pirates’ deficit in the NL Central. The Pirates finished the season just 2 games behind the Cardinals for the NL Central division title and had to host the Giants in the Wild Card Game. If the Pirates then avoid the Giants and instead face the Dodgers in an NLDS, I think they would have had a fairly decent shot at reaching the NLCS, especially because the Pirates would have been able to throw a rested group of Volquez, Liriano, Cole, and Stroman at the Dodgers.
In 2015, Stroman tore his ACL and was placed on the 60-day disabled list, causing him to miss virtually the entire season. However, Stroman did rehab and return in time for the 2015 playoffs. The Pirates once again missed out on the NL Central division title by just 2 games and as a reward had to face the Cubs in the Wild Card Game. Stroman wouldn’t have pitched in that game anyway, as Gerrit Cole was the Pirates’ best pitcher in 2015 without question.
The Pirates had a dismal 2016 season, finishing 78-83 and missing the playoffs altogether. Stroman would have unquestionably been an upgrade over one of Jeff Locke (5.44/4.84/76), Francisco Liriano (5.46/5.28/76), or Jon Niese (4.91/5.36/84). Would Stroman’s 2016 (4.37/3.71/97) have been enough of an upgrade to change the Pirates’ fortunes? Probably not. But it definitely would have made the future in Pittsburgh a lot brighter if the Pirates had a 1-2 punch of Cole and Stroman (and maybe Jameson Taillon!) for the future.
In 2017, Stroman’s best year yet, the Pirates went 75-87. Stroman would have been an excellent upgrade over any of the Pirates’ starters that season, as each starter held an ERA over 4 and only Jameson Taillon held a FIP under 4. But the future was looking bright in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had MLB’s 17th overall prospect Austin Meadows waiting in the wings, along with 19th overall prospect Mitch Keller and 76th overall prospect Shane Baz. Also making his major league debut this season was MLB’s 8th overall prospect (2016 list) Tyler Glasnow.
So, at the end of 2017, the Pirates have: Tyler Glasnow, Marcus Stroman, Gerrit Cole, Shane Baz, and Jameson Taillon. Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl also made their Pirates’ debut in 2017. This looks to be a strong rotation, with Gerrit Cole having pitched extremely well aside from his 2017 down year, Jameson Taillon developing into a legitimate #1 or #2 pitcher alongside Stroman, and Tyler Glasnow still growing as a pitcher and hoping to fulfill his prospect pedigree.
With all of these pieces in place, there’s no reason to trade Gerrit Cole in the offseason. The Pirates are just a few pieces away from contention, and they arguably had those pieces, with Starling Marte, Josh Bell, and Gregory Polanco forming the nucleus of the lineup. The Pirates had some hitting prospects soon to arrive at the major league level as well. It’s important to note, however, that Gerrit Cole became the superstar pitcher he is today only after leaving the Pirates and having his pitch mix altered by the Astros for better results.
If the Pirates had felt comfortable with their top 4 rotation of Glasnow/Stroman/Cole/Taillon, they could have dangled Baz in trade talks to add an impact bat that would have added some serious depth to their lineup. If a lot of things break right for the Pirates and their rotation pitches well, this is absolutely a playoff team and a contender for a World Series title.
Now, with the Pirates holding onto Cole and the rest of their starters, they have no reason to deal Tyler Glasnow and others for Chris Archer. The Pirates wouldn’t have even selected Austin Meadows in the first place, because Meadows was selected with the Pirates’ compensatory pick for not signing Appel. So, the Pirates wouldn’t have been able to deal Austin Meadows away for Chris Archer anyway.
The Astros also don’t get their prized ace in Gerrit Cole, who complemented Justin Verlander well in their 2018 and 2019 campaigns. The Astros didn’t win either of the 2018 or 2019 World Series, but they sure came close, and not having Cole significantly hurts their quest for a second title in 2018 or 2019. The Astros may have potentially looked elsewhere for an ace to put behind Verlander, but Cole staying in Pittsburgh is huge for the Pirates, the Astros, and even the rest of the league.
In short, if the Pirates draft Stroman (or literally any of the top pitchers from the draft listed earlier), their fortunes change dramatically. They don’t deal away Gerrit Cole, the rebuilding process that the Pirates are still working on is shortened to just the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and they potentially compete for a championship with Cole, Stroman, Glasnow, and Taillon under contract.