On Tuesday, baseball superagent Scott Boras told reporters, “there’s a probability” that his client Gerrit Cole, the top pitcher available on the 2019-20 free-agent market, would sign during this week’s winter meetings. Cole’s market, he continued, was “room temperature heading toward a hot climate.” Only hours later, the probability of a signing had spiked to 100 percent, and the market was scalding: On Tuesday night, the Yankees inked Cole to a record contract that guarantees him $324 million over nine years, including a full no-trade clause and an opt-out after the fifth year. Fellow Boras Corporation client Stephen Strasburg, who re-signed with the Nationals on Monday, had only one day to savor being the sport’s top-paid pitcher before Cole’s contract surpassed Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million deal.
Cole’s windfall is the largest ever for a pitcher and the second-largest ever signed by a free agent in terms of total dollars, trailing only Bryce Harper’s $330 million agreement from March. But Harper’s pact was for 13 years, and the only other two contracts to eclipse Cole’s total, Mike Trout’s $430 million extension and Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension, were for 12 and 13 years, respectively. Cole’s yearly rate of $36 million tops Trout’s to give him the highest average annual salary in the sport. Let’s examine the ripple effects from the righty’s historic score and anoint a few winners and losers.
Well, obviously. Cole had an incredible contract year: He led all 2019 pitchers in FanGraphs WAR, finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting, threw a record 11 consecutive starts with at least 10 strikeouts, and posted the highest strikeout rate and strikeout minus walk rate ever recorded by a qualified starting pitcher. His 326 regular-season strikeouts—more than one for every million the Yankees just agreed to fork over—were the most by any pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002. Cole also followed up his league-leading regular-season ERA (2.50) and FIP (2.64) and major-league-leading ERA+ (185) with a 1.72 ERA in 36 2/3 postseason innings. Unsurprisingly, he projects to be baseball’s best pitcher in 2020. He couldn’t have put himself in better position for a payday.
Even so, few went into the offseason expecting Cole to strike it quite this rich. In early November, MLB Trade Rumors predicted an eight-year, $256 million deal. Late last month, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers polled 15 “team executives and baseball insiders” on the offseason’s most pressing questions. When asked whether Cole’s contract would reach $300 million, nine said “close but under,” six said “no chance,” and zero said “definitely.” In the wake of the Zack Wheeler and Strasburg signings, though, it became clear that Cole was destined to be the first pitcher to break the $300 million mark. The 29-year-old is more than two years younger than Strasburg, with a better recent track record and a far less injury-plagued past (he hasn’t hit the IL since 2016).
Cole is a former first pick who finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting in his age-24 season, so he’s always been a promising pitcher, but the data-driven adjustments he embraced in Houston elevated him to an even more elite level after two seasons of heavy sinker use and stagnation in Pittsburgh. Technology-fueled improvements in player development have helped lower the average age of major leaguers and have concentrated more WAR in the roster spots of low-salaried players with scant service time. But they’ve also greatly enriched individual veterans who’ve revitalized their careers, and Cole is a testament to the newfound success smart teams are enjoying when they target and tinker with less progressive teams’ underperforming players. Cole can carry the changes he made in Houston with him to New York, and the sabermetrically sophisticated Yankees are equally capable of helping him implement future tune-ups as he presumably loses some of his stuff with age. For now, though, that stuff is unparalleled: Cole’s 97.4 mph average four-seamer speed ranked third among starters with at least 60 innings pitched this year, and his fastball and breaking ball spin rates are close to the top of the scale.
The Yankees have coveted Cole since they drafted him 28th in 2008; he stayed in school then and signed with the Pirates three years later. The Yankees also tried to trade for Cole after 2017, but the Astros won the sweepstakes and reaped the rewards. He’s much pricier now than he would have been before, but the Yankees can afford to pay a premium for a premium player, particularly in light of the pittances they’ll pay pre-arbitration players like Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andújar, Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman, and Domingo Germán, and first-time arb-eligible players like Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, Gio Urshela, Chad Green, and Jordan Montgomery.
It’s not as if the Yankees have been small spenders in recent seasons, but they sat out the Manny Machado/Harper pursuit and hadn’t splurged on a nine-figure free agent since before the 2014 season, when they landed Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury. New York did trade for Stanton in December 2017, on the heels of his 59-homer MVP season, and they dealt for James Paxton last November, but they haven’t been outspending other teams by Steinbrennerian margins. As a result, they dipped below the competitive balance tax threshold, which means they’ll pay first-time tax rates (20 percent) in 2020, in addition to surrendering a chunk of their international spending budget and incurring a surtax on any spending above $228 million. Cole’s arrival raises their projected 2020 payroll to $239 million, the highest total of any team as of today.
Yankees ownership instructed Brian Cashman to land Cole in spite of the penalties, which once was, and should still be, business as usual for baseball’s most valuable franchise. The Yankees are wealthy enough to assume the risk of Cole flaming out at some point in the course of the nine-year contract, which will run as long as any pitcher contract signed since Wayne Garland’s 10-year deal at the dawn of free agency. They plucked him away from the team that eliminated them from the playoffs in two of the past three years, and they’re obviously envisioning him at the head of a deep October run that would yield the franchise’s first pennant since 2009. But this isn’t only an October-oriented move.
Although the Yankees won 103 games last season, they outperformed their BaseRuns record by nine games, more than any other team. They can count on better health next year, but regardless of the outcome of Boston’s Mookie Betts trade talks, they’ll have to fend off some stiff competition during the regular season. Three of the top five teams in projected 2020 WAR are in the AL East, and even with Cole, the Yankees don’t have a huge lead. But they’ll be bringing back a deep lineup and a shutdown bullpen, and they’ve added the ace of all aces to their rotation, which was their weakness last year (when they were mostly without Luis Severino). If the Yankees can keep churning out cost-controlled talent from their farm system and major league makeovers while also dipping into the top of the free-agent market, their streak of winning seasons—which, like their championship count, now stands at 27—could sustain itself indefinitely.