Source: Astros interested in ace Cole

January 8th, 2018

PITTSBURGH -- Add the defending World Series champions to the list of clubs interested in Pirates right-hander .

The Astros have asked the Pirates about Cole this offseason, a source told's Jon Paul Morosi, joining the Yankees in pursuit of Pittsburgh's 2017 Opening Day starter. That perfectly lines up with comments made Monday by Astros owner Jim Crane, who told and other outlets that Houston is "actively pursuing a high-end starter." Neither club has confirmed the negotiations, which were first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan.

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Outfielder , who made his Major League debut last season, has been discussed in trade talks, according to the Yahoo Sports report. Fisher, 24, hit .212 with a .663 OPS, five homers and 17 RBIs over 53 games in 2017. He played all three outfield spots but spent most of his time in left field.

The Pirates likely would prefer another top Minor League player as the key return in any deal, however, and Houston has a pair of particularly intriguing prospects. Double-A outfielder Kyle Tucker is the Astros' No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and ranks eighth on the Top 100 Prospects list. Double-A right-hander Forrest Whitley ranks second among the Astros' top prospects and 36th overall.

It's unclear if the Astros would be willing to part with either elite prospect, especially with a number of free-agent alternatives still available, including , , Alex Cobb and .

But Cole, 27, would come with two relatively affordable years of control, helping Houston handle the potential loss of and Charlie Morton, both eligible for free agency at the end of the 2018 season.

The Pirates have not publicly stated their plan for 2018, which could be a rebuilding season or one last attempt to contend with a core built around Cole and . Pittsburgh has entertained trade offers this winter for Cole, McCutchen and Josh Harrison, but that talk has not yet led to any transactions.

With two years of control remaining, Cole might be the Bucs' most intriguing trade asset. He has reportedly drawn interest from the Yankees and Twins, two other clubs deep in the kind of young, controllable talent coveted by the Pirates.

One of the game's best young arms in 2015, Cole bounced back from an injury-plagued '16 season to go 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA in 203 innings over 33 starts last year. Much of his regression was due to the career-high 31 homers allowed. He would face less pressure to be the No. 1 starter in the defending champions' rotation, which already includes , Keuchel, and Morton.

The Twins, another club known to be looking for front-line starting pitching, reportedly inquired about Cole earlier this offseason. The most intense speculation this winter has linked Cole to the Yankees, who drafted him out of high school in 2008.

That buzz has quieted lately, but the Yankees and Pirates still match up well for a potential swap involving Cole. New York could offer a package of young talent highlighted by outfielder , who is similar in some regards to Fisher; both are former top prospects who made their debuts last season but don't project to be starters for their current clubs this year.