Cole could be key factor in NL Central race

As I sat down to watch Gerrit Cole make his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, I thought of Andy Benes. Like Cole, Benes was a big hard-throwing right-hander who was the first overall pick in the draft.

I wondered: Would Pirates fans be disappointed if Cole had Andy Benes' career?

The catch with that question: Benes had an excellent career. He won 155 games, pitched 230-plus innings four times, led the league once in strikeouts, picked up Cy Young votes a couple seasons.

That's getting ahead of ourselves, of course. The more pertinent discussion for the Pirates: Will Cole help this year?

I hope fans hold reasonable expectations for Cole; just because Shelby Miller has been so good as a rookie, or Matt Harvey has dominated in his first full season with the Mets, doesn't mean we should assume Cole will excel as well, even if his talent level matches theirs.

His talent was certainly on display in Pittsburgh's 8-2 victory over the Giants at PNC Park. The most impressive thing about Cole's debut was that he controlled his adrenaline. For a guy where the knock against him in the minors was that he tried to throw every pitch 100 mph -- leading to some spotty results -- Cole was remarkably composed. Or looked composed, at least. He said after the game that, after receiving a standing ovation when he took the mound, he was just glad he was able to settle down.

He did that right off the bat, fanning Gregor Blanco on three fastballs: 96, 97 and 99, the third one a blistering heater right down the middle that Blanco couldn't catch up to. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Cole would record just one more strikeout, but didn't walk anybody and kept the Giants off the board until the seventh inning, throwing an efficient 81 pitches in his 6.1 innings.

His biggest out came with the bases loaded in the second and two out. He got ahead of Marco Scutaro with a 97-mph fastball and slider for called strikes, then got Scutaro to fly to right on another slider, a hard, sweeping pitch that if he keeps down in the zone should prove to be an effective offspeed weapon.

For the most part, Cole stuck with his fastball, throwing it 64 times -- 50 for strikes. As you can see from the heat map, he pretty much reared back and fired it down the middle:

It will be interesting to see how this game plan works out in the upcoming weeks. At Triple-A, he allowed just 44 hits in 68 innings, but also fanned just 47. The fastball certainly isn't lacking in velocity, but it can be straight at times. Against the Giants, he faced 26 batters and started 25 of them off with a four-seam fastball (Scutaro got a slider in the fifth inning). The Giants swung at 34 of the 64 fastballs and missed on seven, a miss percentage of 21. That's a good number; the only qualified starters with a higher miss percentage off their fastballs are Yu Darvish, Miller, Harvey, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Kendrick.

As the strikeout total indicates, you generally pitch off your fastball and put hitters away with your offspeed stuff. If Cole can command his four-seamer like he did in this game, that will make his slider and changeup (which he threw three times) that much better.

All in all, a solid performance, the flash of big potential and some hope for the Pirates. Cole left to a standing ovation, one hopes the first of many.

This is the time of year when the rumor mill heats up, but I wonder if the key additions in the National League won't be via a big trade. Unless Cliff Lee gets moved (and the Phillies are still in it), we might not see any big names change addresses at the deadline, certainly not like last season, when Zack Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett were dealt. For one thing, there are still a lot of teams that are going be in the hunt; and those that aren't (Astros, Marlins, Mariners, White Sox, Mets, Cubs) don't really have much to deal. Maybe Lee, maybe Matt Garza, maybe Toronto's Josh Johnson.

No, the biggest game-changers could end up being the rookie callups, not the mercenaries for hire. In fact, two more of those rookies pitched Tuesday night. Michael Wacha of the Cardinals went six innings to earn his first big-league win in a 9-2 victory over the Mets. Wacha can't match Cole's velocity, but gets more movement on his fastball and has a plus changeup. Reds lefty Tony Cingrani was back in the rotation, filling in for Johnny Cueto, and allowed four hits and two runs in a 12-2 win over the Cubs. Like Cole, Cingrani throws a high percentage of fastballs, many up in the zone, but he relies on deception and command more than pure stuff. He's a fascinating guy to watch.

Cole and Wacha look like they're here to stay, while Cingrani will probably remain more of a floating No. 6 starter, filling in when needed. All three are clearly promising youngsters -- and it's possible one of them could end up the deciding factor in the NL Central race.

That's the best aspect of Cole's debut: Not wondering what he'll be next year or in five years, but enjoying this moment, and getting excited about what he'll do in five days. The Pirates don't even necessarily need him to be great; considering their late-season swoons the past two years during which they saw their pitching collapse, they just need him to be effective.

And if, in the future, he develops to become a star … well, isn't that more exciting than expecting him to be a star?