In June of last year I called the Houston Astros the perfect team. They had (have) a young core of position players (Correa, Altuve, Springer, Bregman). They hit for both average and power. They had a solid bullpen (Devenski, Giles). They had veteran leadership (McCann, Beltran). They had an ace (Keuchel) as well as a deep rotation (McCullers, Morton, Peacock). This was before they got Justin Verlander and, of course, before their most recent acquisition - Gerrit Cole.
If I was already in love with Houston's roster before these two moves I'm now head over heels for it. Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Cole, Lance McCullers. That's probably the best rotation in the American League, maybe in all of baseball. The Astros still have a young core but they now have post-season experience on top of it. It's obviously premature to crown them back-to-back champs (we saw with the Cubs this year how hard it is to repeat, and how quickly things can change) but it's impossibly not to give them a real shot, or to not consider them the favorites now.
What's noteworthy about the Stros getting Cole is that they didn't have to give up much. In return for the former number one overall pick Pittsburgh received SP Joe Musgrove, 3B Colin Moran, RP Michael Feliz, and OF Jason Martin. Who?
JJ Cooper of Baseball America notes that the Houston only had to send over the 9th best prospect to make this happen. Jeff Passan of Yahoo makes the case the Pirates didn't really have another option:
The biggest criticism of the Pirates, as multiple evaluators have said, is they had a hugely valuable asset in Gerrit Cole and didn’t get a potential star. Musgrove and Feliz are good. Moran is fine. When low-revenue teams shed frontline talent, it’s imperative to get some back.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 14, 2018
Personally I think this is an underwhelming deal for the Pirates. Cole still has two years left on his contract, and if you're trading someone with his upside you need to get an impact prospect back. There was no rush for them to make this deal. Pittsburgh very well could've waited until the trade deadline and this deal probably still would've been on the table if they couldn't do better. With Cole out of Pittsburgh Andrew McCutchen probably isn't too far behind.
The Astros are going to be very good once again, so what interests me most about this deal will be to see how Cole performs in a new environment. He was everyone's favorite breakout pick after the 2015 season, when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and struck out over 200. He finished 4th in the Cy Young voting that season. Then he was hurt a bit in 2016, making only 21 starts to go along with a 3.88 ERA. He was durable last year, starting a league leading 33 games, but his ERA rose again to 4.26.
Now he's 27 years old. He has the "stuff" to become a borderline ace again, but he's going to need to learn how to pitch. Now throw, but pitch. His fastball is still elite, but similar to other young fireballers he needs to learn to mix in more breaking balls and off speed pitches. Luckily for him, and this is likely why Houston targeted him, the Astros threw the second lowest percentage of fastballs in 2017. They're going to try and change Cole's philosophy. If they fail well then they didn't give up anything too valuable to get him anyways. But if they succeed, we could be looking at our first repeat champion in 18 years.